A claustrophobic thriller set in a lunatic asylum, “Mindgame” is so goofy it’s almost fun. One of the two main characters in Anthony Horowitz’s Hammer Horror-inspired drama, the director of the asylum and a pulp crime writer, may be a serial killer, and it’s up to us to figure out which one. (With Keith Carradine and Lee Godart in these Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing roles, it’s a toss-up.) But more imagination has gone into the tricky set than into the plot, and despite some stabs at realistic horror, helmer Ken Russell can’t quite stop himself from tipping the whole thing into farce.
Hollywood-on-the-Thames, circa 1958, has come calling on the theater, and fans of vintage horror movies may have more patience with this talky melodrama than more, well, normal audiences.
Carradine is a treat to watch as he toys with the untrustworthy character of sinister Dr. Farquhar, who is either the most brilliant of experimental criminal psychiatrists or a homicidal maniac now running the English madhouse laughably known as Fairfields. Speaking in measured tones and smiling out of both sides of his mouth, Carradine exudes both authority and menace as he tries to explain his unconventional methods to a nervous visitor.
Godart is also a man of many faces, all of them set in expressions of wary distrust as Mark Styler, a bestselling crime author hoping to get an interview with a cannibal serial killer who has been locked up at Fairfields for the past 30 years. Perhaps because Styler has been thrown off-stride by the slutty getup worn by Nurse Plimpton (Kathleen McNenny, in the Barbara Steele role), he fails to convince the eccentric psychiatrist that his literary intentions are honorable.
But by the time Styler accepts defeat and prepares to take his leave, he discovers the doors are locked — so the good doctor can conduct an impromptu psychiatric examination of him.
Once the cat-and-mouse game gets under way in earnest, subtle transformations begin to take place on Beowulf Boritt’s funhouse set. Almost imperceptibly, Dr. Farquhar’s book-lined study begins to look less cozy and more institutional. (If you can resist peeking, a fully descriptive outline of these scenic changes appears in the program.)
The protean set is designed, of course, to illustrate the scribe’s central thesis that appearances are deceptive and that even the most rational mind can be clouded by lies, trickery, misdirection and its own preconceived notions about reality. But we get the point, already, without all the repetitive speeches, and we’d appreciate a bit more action.
Hollywood and Britpic vet Russell, whose output includes the iconic “Lair of the White Worm,” is hardly a stranger to Gothic material. But while he shows his technical know-how in the sleight-of-hand staging, he can’t resist tossing in certain Grand Guignol effects that only undermine the suspense.
In the end, the actors outperform their characters and the set upstages the play, which is far too static to begin with — and much too silly to take seriously.