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Invasion of the Mindbenders

1987, Starring Roy Thinnes, Skip Lackey, David Kener, Bill Curry, Lee Tergesen, Miranda de Pencier. Directed by Eugenie Joseph (Gold-Gems Ltd.)


Aliens and rock music are on a collision course in the Montreal-shot sci-fi flick Invasion of the Mindbenders, another obscure straight-to-video effort made during producer/director Jack Bravman's late 1980s tenure in Quebec. One the more interesting projects to emerge under the producer’s Gold-Gems Ltd. Banner, this teen viewer-aimed flick is an amiable if amateurish satire bursting with high school clichés that also touches on themes of mind control that are surprisingly prevalent throughout the history of Canadian genre film.

Invasion of the Mindbenders was the third Canadian feature produced by Bravman, who arrived in Montreal in the mid-'80s after two decades working in the adult film industry in New York City (largely hardcore features under the name J. Angel Martine). Lured by the lucrative tax shelters, Bravman phased into genre features beginning with 1986's Zombie Nightmare, which ended up a popular video store fixture thanks to a VHS release from New World, as well as the Wings Hauser slasher The Carpenter (1987). Looking for a follow up project, Bravman tapped The Carpenter screenwriter Doug Taylor, who did an (uncredited) initial draft of the script for Invasion of the Mindbenders, and Genie Joseph, fresh from her previous credit creating new scenes around salvaged horror FX footage that ended up released as Spookies (1986). After Taylor reportedly left Bravman’s new project over creative differences, Joseph further aligned the script to her vision and, in so doing, became one of the few female directors to take a crack at directing a Canadian B-movie.

In the film, teen buds Frankie (Skip Lackey) and Crash (Lee Tergesen) spend their days spinning rock records at their school radio station, hitting on girls at the mall and dealing with teacher and parental hassles. But their world comes crashing down when Principal Borden (imported American TV journeyman Roy Thinnes) decides to counter what he perceives as a lack of discipline by shuttering the radio station and bringing in Dr. Gunbow (Bill Curry) of the “Behaviour Modification Research Institute” to conduct a new experiment to get the student body under control.

Dr. Gunbow has created a computer system that hides subliminal messages in certain audio frequencies, all controlled from a terminal in the school office. Principal Borden has him pipe these sounds into a classroom where he has gathered Frankie and Crash and some of the school's other worst problem cases. The process works, and most are brainwashed into becoming model students—except for Frankie and Crash, who are too busy blasting tunes on their Walkmans to hear the messages. But things take a turn for the worse when Principal Borden fiddles with the computer's settings and reverses the suppression of violent behaviour, causing an outbreak of student aggression. With the help of their nerdy pal Calvin (David Kener), Frankie and Crash attempt to awaken their peers from Dr. Gunbow's mind control program, only to uncover an intergalactic conspiracy that threatens far more than just their ability to rock all night and party every day.

Canadian filmmakers have long explored ideas about brainwashing and mind control, which pop up in everything from '70s exploitation flicks like Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (1977) to '80s creature features like The Brain (1988). It’s a theme that most likely refers back to experiments that occurred at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute in the 1960s. Using a combination of LSD, various paralytic drugs and electroshock therapy, Institute physician Dr. Ewen Cameron attempted to "rewire" the brains of his patients. However, his experiments, funded by the CIA-funded under the codename MKULTRA, instead caused lasting damage and provoked more questions about the ethics of medical experimentation in the wake of Nazi atrocities. The tragic story was dramatized in the 1998 CBC TV film The Sleep Room, but even before that there's a handful of Canadian sci-fi and horror movies seem to depict the dangers of Cameron's approach (most notably, the Michael Ironside cop-thriller Mindfield (1989)), as unwitting subjects become the poor victims of experimental treatments that go wrong and cause lasting damage.

Though it seems to pick up on the same theme, Invasion of the Mindbenders isn’t really a serious look at the very real perils of these kinds of psychological experiments, but instead is content to squeeze the concept into a more standard tale of teenage rebellion, sometimes reminiscent of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979). Rife with the goofy plotting and questionable production values that often marked Gold-Gem’s later works, the film tries to coast by on charm, and even manages to for a good while. There’s lots of notable scenes peppered throughout, including a hallway brawl, a food fight, a girl's hair being lit on fire and a scene in which the main characters perform a rap in a bathroom mirror, but what really makes the film work is the comedic chemistry between Skip Lackey and Lee Tergesen as Frankie and Crash. Clearly a cut above some of the other amateur actors filling out the case, the pair seem to be having a blast playing these teen rock fan doofuses, and their energy helps nudge the film towards the top half of Bravman’s Canadian output. And hey—if Invasion of the Mindbenders can convince audiences that it’s not so bad without resorting to insidious subliminal messaging or brain manipulating audio tone, then it’s surely doing something right.

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