Apsycho-horror thriller about a switcheroo gone haywire, "The Machine" is an efficiently told tale about a respected contemporary scientist who, in what he intends as a fleeting experiment, trades minds and bodies with a psychotic murderer. Keen playing of compelling premise by a cast led by Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye leads to a dark conclusion that should please conventional horror fans and tonier auds alike.

Apsycho-horror thriller about a switcheroo gone haywire, “The Machine” is an efficiently told tale about a respected contemporary scientist who, in what he intends as a fleeting experiment, trades minds and bodies with a psychotic murderer. Keen playing of compelling premise by a cast led by Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye leads to a dark conclusion that should please conventional horror fans and tonier auds alike.

A creepy-crawly score and off-kilter atmosphere pull viewers into an opening seg in which a sinister young boy comes to his mother’s bedroom door armed with a knife and a gun. Action then backtracks “18 Months Earlier,” whereupon Depardieu’s dense voiceover explains that he’s Dr. Marc Lacroix, a brain specialist and shrink whose obsession with discovering how the mind and spirit form within the brain has led him to work with the criminally insane.

Hoping to show twisted patients that there are healthier alternatives to evil thoughts — and yearning to sample a depraved mind-set for himself — Marc secretly builds a machine that can swap minds between two humans. Perfect guinea pig is Zyto (Didier Bourdon), a squat, unsavory-looking fellow described as “the devil himself,” who’s been locked up for stabbing at least three women to death.

As Marc has lost interest in communicating with his wife Marie (Baye), only his shapely young mistress Marianne (Natalia Woerner) knows of the machine’s existence in an isolated country house.

The trial transfer is nicely accomplished via a “2001”-style voyage through the pupil of an eye. Once installed in Marc’s body, Zyto rebels, refusing to help reverse the process and return to his own bod. Marc’s oversight in not building a fail-safe or override mechanism is glossed over, and pic roars at full speed into an edgy tussle between good and evil in which the latter has a comfortable head start.

Based on a novel by Rene Belletto, the script reworks timeless elements from pix like “Frankenstein,””Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and even a bit of “Shock Corridor.” Fluid, urgent lensing and snappy editing propel characters through a kind of speed-chess game, with their own bodies as the playing pieces.

Marc ends up at his asylum in Zyto’s body, while Zyto (in Marc’s body) inherits the doctor’s wife, son and job, the last requiring constant improvisation to avoid detection.

Buffs will note intriguing echoes of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” in which Baye and Depardieu were also paired, as Baye is again playing a role in which she must decide if Depardieu’s character is her husband or an impostor.

By the time the plot catches up with opening seg, viewers have been on a cleverly choreographed roller-coaster ride of identity and appearances — with a stomach-churning dip yet to come.

Helmer Francois Dupeyron elicits on-the-nose perfs in what could have been a confusing mess if executed with less control. As doc and psycho, Depardieu and Bourdon skillfully modulate their voices and body language. Well-known producer/director Claude Berri contributes a fine acting turn as the asylum’s director.

Production design by Carlos Conti manages to emphasize the fact that characters are trapped, even though they transit through wide-open, spacious dwellings.

According to production notes, both the pic’s producer and the author of the original book say they’d hoped to enlist an American director to make a Hollywood film but gave in to scripter/helmer Dupeyron’s passion for the material. They have no reason to regret their decision.

The Machine

(FRENCH-GERMAN)

Production

A Pan-Europeenne release (in France) of a Hachette Premiere, DD Prods., Prima , M6 Films, France 2 Cinema (France)/Studio Babelsberg (Germany) production, with the participation of Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Studio Images, Studio Canal Plus, CNC, French Ministry of Culture, Filmfoerderung Berlin, Filmfoerderungsanstalt. (International sales: Polygram Film Intl., London.) Produced by Rene Cleitman. Co-executive producers, Branard Bouix (France), Ingrid Windisch (Germany). Directed, written by Francois Dupeyron, based on the novel by Rene Belletto.

Crew

Camera (color), Dietrich Lohmann; editor, Noelle Boisson; music, Michel Portal; production design, Carlos Conti; costumes, Elisabeth Tavernier; sound (Dolby), Pierre Gamet, Gerard Lamps, Anne Lecampion; special optical and digital effects, Frederic Moreau; assistant director, Cathy Joube; casting, Jeanne Biras. Reviewed at Club Gaumont screening room, Paris, Nov. 17, 1994. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Marc ... Gerard Depardieu Marie ... Nathalie Baye Zyto ... Didier Bourdon Marianne ... Natalia Woerner Leonard ... Erwan Baynaud Hugues ... Claude Berri
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