Sunday, July 30, 2023

Shadowed Mind, The (1988)

Directed by:
Cedric Sundström

Forget white-walled, sterile facilities in major cities with state-of-the-art equipment and a staff of competent professionals, or even quaint brick buildings with well-manicured lawns in the country, this particular psychiatric clinic is located inside a giant, remote warehouse with an always-locked, impenetrable front gate. Upstairs it's all cheap aluminum siding in cavernous, almost completely empty rooms with a few chairs for the cast to sit but down below we get crumbling stone archways and sleeping quarters tucked away in catacombs all lit up with bold, multi-colored lighting. Clearly, this place in no way reflects an actual clinic, which may or may not be a clue as to where this film is actually headed. One thing's established up front: This is a facility using experimental "treatments" on its patients, which involves a combination of group therapy, one-on-one sessions, mysterious pills and injections of multi-colored substances that are never explained. There are a lot of story elements here that are, shall we say, left open to interpretation.

Privately run, and up until now also financed by, Dr. Dieter Hildesheimer (Towje Kleiner), the unnamed clinic is awaiting approval on a million dollar government grant from the Foundation for Better Mental Health Care, which would conceivably enable them to expand their scope and treat more patients... granted that's even their intention. As it stands now though, they only have a small handful of patients who curiously don't appear to have benefited much from the doctor's methods.

As the film begins, the buxom, husky-voiced Stephanie (Adrienne Pearce) has just arrived. She's been shipped there by her father, who's embarrassed that his daughter has a compulsion to flash her breasts at nearly everyone she encounters. This has something to do with an obsession with her own mother's breasts ("If I couldn't have them, I had to see them!") and spying on mum having adulterous affairs ("My mother's exposure? Gloooooorious!") As we'll soon see, the rest of the bizarre patients at this place almost make Stephanie's exhibitionism and mommy fixation seem pretty mild by comparison!

There's the handsome but virginal Paul (Rufus Swart), who suffers from severe anger issues, emasculation nightmares, the inability to ever get an erection and "a stunted libido" that has "developed into a neurotic condition with psychotic undercurrents." All of that somehow had landed him in prison, though he's not willing to say for what. He's also not exactly who he claims to be and is scheming behind the scenes with the doctor. Speaking of "stunted," the soft-spoken, child-like and emotionally fragile Matthew (Simon Poland) was severely bullied as a boy and now clutches onto a teddy bear and channels all of his repression into obsessing over natural and spiritual matters. Oh yeah, and he also cut off his own dick at the age of 18 and now bemoans the fact no potential romantic partner will accept his "sexlessness."

A third patient, the pretty Julia (Hayley Dorskey), is also bitter about never being able to have a successful relationship, which seems to have something to do with childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle which has, in turn, caused her to develop multiple personalities. A black man who goes by just General (Simon Sabela) doesn't seem to be a part of the rehab program at all and just wanders around dressed in military garb incoherently barking out orders. Is this all supposed to be some kind of warped, blackly comic parable about sociopolitical issues exclusive to South America in the late 80s? I'd say that's highly likely.

The clinic's additional staff is equally off-putting. Nurse Helen (Trish Downing), the doctor's full time assistant and part time lover, is cold, icy and driven almost exclusively by money and success. Some former patients now work there, including equal opportunity man-whore / orderly Kurt (Evan J. Klisser), whose mother died giving birth to him. As a result of that trauma, he may have been a serial killer who murdered "whores" in the city before being rehabilitated. Kurt has been sleeping around with whoever will have him, including the jealous Julia and the perpetually-tardy staff assistant Brenda (Debra Kaye). If that isn't enough, he also has eyes for a second female assistant - Alice (Jennifer Steyn) - and is secretly carrying on a booze-and-pill fueled same sex affair with fellow orderly Nick (Nicholas Ashley Nortier).

After one of Kurt's trysts, someone sneaks into Brenda's room and viciously stabs her to death. When the body is discovered the following morning, Dr. Dieter insists they don't get the police involved. If word gets out about what happened, there goes the clinic and there goes the financing. Because of his murderous past, Kurt is immediately suspected of the crime, but Helen enlists his aid in covering it all up and hiding the body. Kurt is soon removed from the suspect list himself after the same assailant knifes him to death in the shower. More murders will eventually follow and the clinic itself turns out not to be the place of care and healing that the staff profess it to be.

Some movies are so obviously flawed in so many different ways that you can't quite recommend them yet so uniquely weird in so many different ways they cannot be denied either. The Shadowed Mind is such a film. It's cheaply made yet also visually pleasing, completely preposterous yet enjoyably unpredictable and utilizes an overly-familiar murderer-in-a-nuthouse premise yet manages to make it seem somewhat fresh by setting things in a peculiar location with unique art direction, super stylized lighting and clever camerawork, and focusing on its strange characters and their even stranger psycho-sexual maladies. The bloody knife murders, sex and full-frontal nudity (male and female) will appeal to trash movie fans, the visuals are strong enough to rope in giallo buffs and the heavy homoeroticism (which goes just a bit beyond mere implication here) is pretty ballsy and also comes as a surprise for a film made in the late 80s.

Positives aside, this is still far from smooth sailing all the way through. It's very confusing to start, sometimes pretentious, often downright silly, riddled with unintentionally hilarious dialogue and features highly uneven acting, ranging from awkward, wooden and stilted (English doesn't appear to be the first language of several of the primary actors) to somewhat competent. Still, if you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary, this has you covered, and I respected what they were trying to do here even if they're not quite able to pull it all off.

Sundström, best known for making the third and fourth sequels in the American Ninja series, is the brother of director Neal Sundström (HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE; Slash). It was filmed entirely in South Africa with a mostly South African cast and crew, but was partially financed by Australian David Hannay and his namesake company. Hannay also turns up here in one scene as a potential investor in the clinic. One of the executive producers was Israeli-born Avi Lerner, who'd go on to become a top Hollywood producer with over 350 credits to his name to date. Most of the cast can be seen in other South African horror / trash films from this same time, like LETHAL WOMAN (1988), RETURN OF THE FAMILY MAN (1988) and HELLGATE (1989).

The Severin press release claims this was "immediately banned" by the South African government soon after it debuted. IMDb also (falsely!) claims that this was given a VHS release only in Panama (!) and that the film was given an NC-17 rating here in the U.S., which is strange considering it was never even given a release here until the 2022 Blu-ray, which is unrated.

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