For gorehounds who like the early films of David Cronenberg but secretly wish their themes and subtext didn’t get in the way of the exploding heads, Joe Begos’ “The Mind’s Eye” offers a mainlined shot of retro-horror. Begos’ follow-up to “Almost Human,” his John Carpenter-inspired debut feature, confirms the helmer as an enthusiastic student of ‘80s genre fare, but a frustrating underachiever. Pitting telekinetic savants against a mad doctor keen on siphoning their power, the film has the visceral kick of brainiacs willing each other into bloody oblivion, but struggles to justify its own stock mayhem, much less plumb Cronenbergian depths. Long-term prospects are likely limited to the digital equivalent of a clamshell VHS box.
From the “Videodrome” public-access title fonts to the minimalist Carpenter-inspired score, Begos at least gets the surface details pleasingly right. Introduced as a scruffy drifter in the Kurt Russell vein — albeit with the teeniest fraction of his charisma — “Almost Human” star Graham Skipper again takes the lead as Zack, a young beard-o both gifted and cursed with telekinetic powers.
Following his arrest for a violent run-in with police, Zack gets a visit from the nefarious Dr. Slovak (John Speredakos), who beckons him to come to the institute where he studies telekinesis. Though Zack correctly snuffs out ulterior motives, Dr. Slovak lures him to the compound by promising a reunion with Rachel (Lauren Ashley Carter), his similarly gifted girlfriend.
Once there, Zack undergoes a series of painful treatments that limit his power while adding to a day-glo serum that Dr. Slovak is harvesting from his patients, who are being kept against their will. With Dr. Slovak self-administering the serum, the film sets up the inevitable showdown between his artificially weaponized telekinetic and Zack and Rachel, whose powers are weakened but more organic. Cue many shots of characters staring and straining until red in the face, looking like the tension could be broken with a laxative.
In some basic respects, “The Mind’s Eye” delivers the goods, and the Midnight Madness crowd may appreciate the red meat tossed in its direction. The practical effects, coordinated by John Ruggieri, are resolutely old-school, a feast of head-splitting (and head-rolling) gore and squishy detonations of flesh. The make-up, too, is a Fangoria pictorial of popping veins, infected pustules, and evolving facial decay. Begos spends much of the film raising the stakes for the climactic battle between Zack and Dr. Slovak, and he succeeds at a minimum in scaling up the physical and psychic power of their confrontation.
But making a feature-length Cronenberg homage without the auteur’s brainy themes and underlying stresses is like serving chocolate ice cream for dinner. Zack, Rachel, and Dr. Slovak have interior gifts, but little interior life, so they’re reduced to good and evil forces placed in opposition, with no more than basic mortality on the line. Telekinesis serves as a metaphor for nothing in particular, and the pic follows in kind, existing wholly as an affectionate retread of better films from the past, but without any distinguishing elements.
Of the characters, the diabolical Dr. Slovak has the best chance of standing out, but while Speredakos has the look of a throwback villain, with an imposing gait and an oversized set of white teeth, he’s mostly reduced to snarling, red-faced frustration.
Tech credits are resourceful, with Begos again serving as his own cinematographer, as he did with “Almost Human,” here infusing the widescreen images with the oppressive grays of the snowbound north. Steve Moore’s score also stands out for its elasticity — it doesn’t just set the mood, but serves as an effective stinger during the action sequences. Their technical work, along with the inevitable appearance of indie-horror legend Larry Fessenden, contribute to pic’s time-machine quality.