Written by: Jonathan Craven, Phil Mittleman
Directed by: Joe Gayton
Starring: Lance Henriksen, Claire Stansfield, and Dan Blom
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Loose ends come back to haunt you."
Rarely is it ideal for a filmís reputation to precede it due to production or distribution shenanigans. So it is with Mind Ripper, a 1995 effort that would have been completely relegated to the dustbin of time if not for the shameless efforts of its producers to rebrand it as The Hills Have Eyes III in some territories. Itís not a new trick, obviously, but this is the sort of thing that had been much more common years earlier, when drive-ins and grindhouses ruled the day. Something about this particular attempt strikes me as more brazen, especially since any connection to The Hills Have Eyes is tenuous. Aside from beginning life as an actual sequel before its screenwriters went in a different direction, just about the only thing Mind Ripper has in common with Hills is the presence of executive producer Wes Craven and a desert setting. Otherwise, itís pretty disposable junk that Iím pretty sure we wouldnít even bother talk about, so point one to the producers, I guess.
You could make the argument that Mind Ripper also vaguely echoes Cravenís preoccupation with institutions and science gone haywire. In this case, nuclear testing is replaced by government scientists performing biological experiments to create a superhuman out of cadavers. Their newest specimen is ďThor,Ē (Dan Blom) a suicide victim they stumble upon in a nearby forest, and the situation quickly (and predictably) goes south when they reanimate the corpse. Confused and righteously pissed off about being awakened from the dead, he embarks on a bloody rampage just in time to be reunited with Stockton (Lance Henriksen), the former lead scientist who scraped him up off the ground to begin with. After leaving the project in disgust, Stockton is has returned out of guilt to make things right with his family inexplicably in tow, which I suppose also helps it to earn whatever connection it has to The Hills Have Eyes.
Criticisms of these exploitative tactics aside, Mind Ripper isnít a completely awful movie so much as itís simply a forgettable one (and one that you donít want to watch with heavy eyelids, I might add). I am never one to dismiss any film that involves a mutant cannibal going wild on unsuspecting assholes, so itís not as if Mind Ripper is without an obvious appeal. On this front, it delivers well enough, at least initially: thereís plenty of impalements, flesh-ripping, and brain-eating once Thor busts loose and savages whatís left of the skeleton crew. Not only have the experiments granted him superhuman strength, but heís got a nasty tongue appendage that allows him to easily extract his victims brains straight from the skulls, which is convenient accessory that should make him a big shot at the next cannibal serial convention.
As the film unfolds, it takes a bit more of a suspenseful (and somnolent) approach that has Thor skulking about the facility, systematically picking off the rest of the survivors. What makes the forced connection to The Hills Have Eyes even more amusing is that this stretch of the film actually feels a lot more like Alien, what with Thor creeping around in shafts and whatnot. Some of the scientists even attempt to track him with a device similar to the one wielded by the crew aboard the Nostromo. Plus, Lance Henriksen is standing right there, practically inviting even more comparisons to the Alien franchiseónot that Mind Ripper has any intentions of living up to it. Well, maybe itís on par with Alien: Resurrection. Speaking of Henriksen, his presence does at least speak to the intentions of elevating Mind Ripper by virtue of the fact that any movie is better with Lance Henriksen than it is without him. And wouldnít you know itófor the long stretch here where heís held captive by Thor, the movieís even more of a drag.
At this point, youíre stranded with the Stockton kids, who are admittedly not the worst company since theyíre played by Giovanni Ribisi and Natasha Gregson Wagner. The former is the Troubled Teen of the bunch, and you know this because headphones blaring heavy metal are glued to his ears. Heís still sulking over all the time his dad spent in the lab instead of at home, so the sappier bits of Mind Ripper play out like a Very Special Episode of a generic monster movie. Wagner, on the other hand, is a plucky counterpart saddled with a dopey, horny boyfriend (Adam Solomon), whose sole function is to irritate the hell out of everyone until Thor mercifully puts an end to it (spoiler). If Iím being honest, Mind Ripper has a weirdly great cast, and I havenít even mentioned Claire Stansfield emerging as the requisite Ripley analogue. She kicks a lot of ass as Joanne, a scientist that is having none of Thorís shit.
Of course, theyíre not given anything else particularly interesting to do since Thor is the main attraction here, for better or worse. Just about any monster movie lives and dies by how intriguing its creature is, and this one kind of splits the difference. On the one hand, the killer tongue appendage is a neat flourish, as is the implication that he literally needs to feed on brains to sustain himself (hence the title). But on the other hand, he looks like beefcake who should be playing bass in one of those shitty leftover hair metal bands that were still trudging along in the 90s, at least until he ditches the long locks for a mutant Mr. Clean look. Also, for whatever reason, weíre treated to one of his dreams, which unfolds as an elaborate fake-out that sees him slaughtering whatís left of the cast. Itís a really disorienting moment that honestly doesnít amount to much in the grand scheme, and I can only imagine itís a bizarre tribute to the dog flashbacks in Hills 2.
At any rate, Thor at least goes out in a blaze of gloryóitís not every day you see a climax as spectacularly over-the-top as the one found in Mind Ripper, though I am quite confident we shouldnít hold out any hope about anyone ever following up on the sequel tease. At least screenwriter Jonathan Craven did get a second shot at doing a proper Hills movie with the follow-up to the Ajaís remake, though that one also ended up being just as forgettable as this effort. I really only recall the very beginning of that film, just as Iím likely to only recall the very end of this one, which is better than nothing. I suppose Iíll also remember how I stumbled onto a used DVD* copy of Mind Ripper long after it was out of print, only to see Code Red announce a brand new Blu-ray just months later. They released it under the misleading Hills title (at the behest of fans, who voted on the artwork) without providing any contextósadly, there are no extra features, not that youíd expect many for a film Lance Henriksen is reportedly embarrassed to have been involved with.
In many respects, that makes Mind Ripper a harbinger of things to come: Henriksen would go on to feature in scores of these things over the next twenty years (and counting!), while Cravenís name would become attached to films that were, quite frankly, beneath him. Then again, the "Wes Craven Presents" era did yield Wishmaster, so it wasn't a total waste.
*The screengrabs here are taken from the DVD. Code Redís Blu-ray restores the film to its original 1.85 aspect ratio and looks quite solid, all things considered.
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