Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Mindwarp (1991) [copyright 1990]

... aka: Brain Slasher
... aka: Dream System
... aka: Mindwarp - Futuro virtuale (Mindwarp - Virtual Future)
... aka: Odisea en el tiempo (Odyssey in Time)
... aka: Pesadelo Futuro (Future Nightmare)

Directed by:
Steve Barnett

Fangoria magazine became such a big deal in the 80s that they decided to branch out into filmmaking by the end of the decade. The initial plan, and not necessarily a bad one in theory, was to produce one genre film per year. Seeing how covering gory horror and sci-fi flicks was still profitable at the time, the magazine was still selling, they were hosting a popular namesake genre convention and already had a fan base and name brand established, why not cut into a slice of the lucrative home video market while you're at it? Well, a few problems here. For starters, they should have tried this about five years earlier. Video stores were already stocked to capacity and tons of different labels were already competing for shelf space in the early 90s. A store may or may not buy a copy of an unknown movie from Fangoria Films (who had a partnership with Columbia Pictures at the time) but they're definitely going to buy 100 copies of a movie with big name stars from any number of major studio competitors. Additionally, while the types of splatter films Fangoria made their name on were not completely dead in 1990, their popularity was waning and these types of film wouldn't really be all that popular just a few years later.

Still, I'd say the primary problem here was expectations. If your company is comprised of genre aficionados who are supposed experts in the genre, people are going to expect these releases to be, ya know, actually good, or at the very least better than the usual low budget genre fodder. After all, if these people don't know their shit, then who does? Well, they pretty much fumbled the ball here and I think that was primarily because they were banking more on what K.N.B. Effects Group would bring to the table than who they were hiring to make these movies.

Tony Randel, whose previous foray into the genre was the incredibly dreary Hellbound: Hellraiser II, was tapped to direct their vampire film Children of the Night. Not surprisingly, the end result was an incredibly dreary movie that wasn't much fun to watch despite Karen Black giving it her best shot and attempts at humor that were childish at best. For Army (later re-titled Severed Ties), Fangoria was able to get a few known actors (like Oliver Reed) on board and then handed the reigns over to Damon Santostefano. Santostefano's only previous genre work as director was a couple of Scream Greats documentaries and shooting (very bad) "comic" linking footage for the horror shorts compilation FRIGHT SHOW (1985). Mindwarp (easily the best of these for what it's worth) was handed over to Steve Barnett, whose sole previous feature directorial credit was the comedy Hollywood Boulevard II (1989). Aside from that, he did a lot of post production work for Roger Corman.

I'm not saying the people above don't have any talent and I'm not saying the people above shouldn't have been given, or didn't somehow earn, an opportunity to prove what they could do. I'm just saying it probably wasn't a good idea for Fangoria to start a film production wing on the backs of unproven entities, especially since they were connected to pretty much every major horror talent who was working at the time. Not surprisingly, none of these films did all that well critically, commercially or with fans, and in house productions from Fangoria were no more after just three attempts. Instead, they decided to re-brand themselves as a distributor of other people's films.

It's 2037 (just 13 years from now folks... buckle up!) and the human race have mostly retreated from the real world and opted for a virtual one instead. Imagine never having to leave your home - or your BED even (except for nourishment and potty breaks) - and still be able to go anywhere you want, do whatever you want with whoever you want and be whatever you want. A company called Infinisynth has invented a technology that does just that and it's resulted in humans being able to completely retreat from reality and live in whatever fantasy world they choose. With a quick and easy outlet implant in your neck, you can now plug into a machine and live the exact life you want to live. No more jobs, no more interactions with pesky real people, no more responsibilities, no more having to feel bad feelings or negative thoughts, or be disappointed, or worry about friends or family or anything else. Your life is now entirely whatever you want it to be and the best part is that you don't even have to put any real effort into it.

Right away, this is a fascinating, still-timely premise that has parallels to our modern day online existence. Most of us now kind of do retreat from the real world on a daily basis, at least for part of the day. There are those that take it to extremes by essentially burying themselves in gaming worlds and small online communities, where we enjoy our anonymity and can claim to be whatever or whoever we want. It's certainly not to the extreme it is here but this isn't too far out of the realm of future possibilities at all, especially with all of the recent metaverse talk. I'd say a large chunk of the population probably would volunteer to live exactly like this if given the option.

Our protagonist, Judith Apple (Marta Alicia), is sick of the virtual world and wants to get outside and explore the real one. She finds her current life to be a prison and has been going without her virtual fix for awhile now. Her mother, Pamela (Mary Becker), is too far gone at this point. Using such technology for a constant deluded high would certainly have an effect on one's mental state over time. Judy is revolting against it. In an effort to wake her mother up, she manages to plug in and invade her virtual opera singer fantasy but accidentally kills her in the process. When she unplugs, she awakens to find her mother actually dead. An alarm sounds, two helmeted guards bust in and she's injected with a substance that knocks her out.

When Judy awakens she's buried in a very shallow grave in a desolate, icy, nightmarish post apocalyptic wasteland. Clawing her way out, she's first greeted by the sight of a corpses strewn on poles, and then stumbles into a sinkhole. A pair of nomads wearing gas masks and driving a refurbished tractor swing by long enough to throw her a rope and pull her out. Unfortunately, the nomads are also cannibalistic mutants, so they proceed to immediately tie her up and gag her; presumably to make her their next meal. Another wasteland dweller, this one decked out in patchwork animal rags and goggles, and armed with a crossbow, shoots the cannibals. Luckily for her, this time she gets Bruce Campbell in hero mode.

Campbell's character, Stover, is one of the only non-mutated humans still presiding in an area known as the Deadlands, which may be the only habitable above-ground area on Earth as far as we know. He's careful to wash off the toxic chemicals he comes into contact with, eats possum instead of human flesh and knows how to survive. Before destroying the Ozone layer and rendering Earth almost completely uninhabitable, the rich naturally retreated underground to safety where they've lived as "dreamers" hooked up to their Infinisynth machines, while the poor were left to scavenge, wither, mutate and / or die. Those adversely effected have turned into those cannibal mutants (called "crawlers"), who've built a civilization under some landfills, while Stover has bucked all the odds and managed to keep himself alive, and relatively normal, all of this time. His wife and family weren't so lucky. As Stover is teaching Judy how to survive in her harsh new home, the two fall in love.

Ambushed by the crawlers late one night, Stover and Judy are dragged into the bowels of their catacomb home. There they discover a makeshift society and a hierarchy of sorts with some of the mutants treated as captive slaves (used to dig out the tunnels and find "treasures" in the mountains of trash) and the others the sadistic guards, meant to whip the workers into action and / or punish those who disobey. Stover and Judy are separated, with him promptly shackled and put to work digging and she ending up in the clutches of the sadistic Cornelia (Elizabeth Kent), who hopes to put her to work as a breeder to help repopulate their society. Cornelia has a mute young female slave named Claude (Wendy Sandow) and is the mistress of the real ruler of this society: The Seer (Phantasm series star Angus Scrimm).

Things open promisingly and this is a fairly well-made film from a technical standpoint on a million dollar budget, but it loses its way once our heroes find themselves in the clutches of the crawlers. The film then treads water as our heroes plot their escape and doesn't pick up again until Scrimm enters the picture hatching incest plots, ripping out eyeballs with a Freddy-like clawed glove, presiding over human mulching rituals and drinking fresh blood out of a skull goblet. The underground trash heap production design is appropriate for the story but the relentless hideousness of the backdrop, dreary lighting and ugly, muddy color schemes make this look, and feel, miserable. And while that may be the desired effect, it's tedious all the same. The plot twists trotted out toward the end are mostly predictable and the more interesting plot points don't feel like they're being utilized to their full potential. That said, there is at least some interesting content and genuine ambition that went into this, which helps to make up for some of the flaws.

As expected, there's a heaping helping of gore on display; so much so that this originally had to be released in both R and unrated versions. We get dismemberment, hooks stuck in faces and backs, disembowelment / gut splatter, slashed throats, impalements, eye gougings, pulverized bodies, mutant leech-fish burrowing under skin, a mouth spraying a blood geyser and loads more. The effects are generally fun / good, though the low lighting makes it difficult to appreciate a lot of the mutant make-up jobs.

Campbell isn't as campy, cartoon-like and over-the-top as Evil Dead fans are accustomed to, but instead a bit more warm and human whenever they allow him to be. Leading lady Alicia (who has a much larger role than either Campbell or Scrimm despite being billed third) gives a surprisingly capable performance, especially considering this was one of her first film roles. Scrimm, Kent and Becker all do fine in support. No real Oscar turns here, but the quality of the acting was still better than expected.

There's still some conflicting information about this online, with some sources claiming it began filming in 1989 and others claiming it was 1990, and the release year given as both 1991 and 1992 depending on where you look. The credits copyright date is 1990 (the same year the male stars were promoting it at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention) and, while it may have played at film festivals in late '91, it didn't see the general release light of day here until the following year. The U.S. VHS debut came in August 1992, at least two years after it was shot. The Blu-ray releases are from Mill Creek and Twilight Time.

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