Sunday, 2 March 2014

Minds of Terror

Director: Mark Adams
Writer: Mark Adams
Producer: Mark Adams
Cast: Joe Estevez, Nicole Crawford, Randy Allen
Country: USA
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: US DVD

Ultra-low budget, shot-on-video cheapies - of which Minds of Terror is an example - fall into one of two camps, depending on their plot. They are either coherent but clichéed or original but incomprehensible. Minds of Terror is definitely the latter. It is different enough to the morass of competing camcorder horrors to stand out - but it makes not a lick of sense. Nevertheless, this is an ambitious and intriguing horror picture that punches above its weight.

What Minds of Terror does indubitably have going for it - and I’m not saying this makes it a better film, just a more interesting one - is an utterly bizarre production history which has seen not only a string of title changes but the whole structure of the film turned inside out and upside-down. It also features brief appearances by ‘names’ which redefine the limits of the term ‘cameo’.

Chris Watson (Zombiegeddon, Evil Ever After) was the man with the idea to produce Minds of Terror, an anthology picture about inmates at a mental institution. Mark Adams was approached to direct two segments for this anthology, one of which would concern three students investigating the abandoned asylum and meeting a strange man who claims to be a former warder but is actually a former patient. The other story told of a man who staggers from a car accident, having lost his memory and finds his way to a farmhouse. The man he meets there, he assumes is the owner but in fact is also a stranger, his car having broken down. When a radio newsflash announces that a family has been killed, both men suspect the other. Meanwhile the first man is being stalked by a knife-wielding stranger who seems to be everywhere at once and is possibly a ghost.

All well and good but that initial conception of Minds of Terror fell apart. Eventually Adams was able to film both his stories, although not in the way he planned, and combined them into a feature called Lost Souls. In addition, he crafted each story into a separate short, with the intention of sending them to festivals. The story of the students was titled Stoneridge (the name of the institution) and the story of the car crash amnesiac, which featured Joe Estevez (DeathBed, Hell Asylum, Dead Season and a million other B-movies) as the real owner of the farmhouse, was titled Lost Souls and Evil Thoughts.

Chris Watson took the films and edited them together in the opposite order under the original planned title of Minds of Terror. ‘Opposite order’ means that in Lost Souls, the students story is a flashback within the car crash amnesiac story, while in Minds of Terror (which is what I’ve just watched) the car crash amnesiac story is a flashback within the students story.

Are you following this?

The explanation on Adams' website goes into great detail about who was cast, who was recast, how schedules were shuffled and how footage from other films was included or omitted. The finished film (Minds of Terror, just in case you’re getting confused) includes two or three blink-and-you’ll-miss-them clips from other stories originally intended to be part of the anthology structure. This means that the three actors whose names grace the DVD sleeve alongside Estevez - Eric Spudic, Robyn Griggs and Conrad Brooks - have about twenty seconds screen time between them and I think only Brooks has a line. Spudic (Psycho Santa, Savage Harvest 2, Halloween Night) is credited as ‘Henry’, Brooks (Glen or Glenda, Plan Nine from Outer Space, Dr Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots) as ‘Doctor’ and Griggs (Dead Clowns, Zombiegeddon, Final Curtain) as ‘Robot woman’ (‘Android girl’ according to the Inaccurate Movie Database) - but none of them have any definable character because none of them are on screen for more than, literally, a moment.

So let’s take a look at what we’ve actually ended up with on this DVD. Three Kansas University students - Karla Terry (Nicole Crawford), her long-haired, goateed brother Robert/Bobby (Patrick McCaffery) and their friend Andy Carlson (Matthew Mazouch) - are on their way to the old Stoneridge psychiatric establishment when their car breaks down. Andy visited the place as a child and claims to have seen ghosts; Karla is a scribe for the student paper who plans to write a story on the spooky old place and Bobby is a snapper for the same publication who wishes his sister would call him Robert (a running gag which quickly becomes tiresome although it does have a pay-off right at the end of the film).

The trio walk from their car to Stoneridge which they are surprised to find is not only in good repair but is actually occupied by an oddball ex-warden named Jeffery Vandoren (Randy Allen) who says he is studying the psychological and medical backgrounds of former patients in an attempt to locate the root cause of insanity. Or something. Allen plays Vandoren as a slightly unnerving, weirdly placid, emotionless individual - a complex performance which is far more than a movie of this size usually enjoys or deserves.

Quite what happens during the rest of the film is anybody’s guess. The three students explore for a while then get split up and have various dreamlike experiences both inside and outside the building, some of which involve being chased. Eventually Karla finds Bobby dead and Andy trussed up and tortured, at which point Vandoren (whose files she had read in an office) admits to being an ex-patient and launches into a tale about the time he wandered towards a farmhouse after banging his head in a car crash.

Now we’re into the other story, the only connection being Vandoren who is played here less otherworldly and with no reference to him being either a mental patient or a warden. Adams himself plays Brad Noland, the fellow whom Vandoren initially assumes to be the owner of the farmhouse. A curious aspect of this film - which must have had a budget that made change from five bucks - is that Adams is essentially a one-man band. He is the entire crew so in these scenes he has simply locked off the camera on a tripod and stepped in front of the lens. It is to his credit that I did not realise this until I saw the 15 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage included on the DVD. Rather cheekily, Adams credits himself not only as director but also as director of photography and camera operator. Technically he could probably have had ‘focus puller’ too but maybe he thought that would be taking the piss?

One downside of this one-man-band approach is that there is no sound-man and everything is simply recorded on the camera mike. Remarkably, in defiance of both the normal quality of sound on zero-budget productions and my belief that you can’t make a decent film of any sort without a boom mike, the sound quality is very good. The only time it drops, ironically, is when the best actor is on screen. Joe Estevez mutters his lines when he appears as the real owner of the farmhouse and the camera mike simply can’t pick up his dialogue. (The unnamed character is simply credited as ‘The farm owner’, not ‘Kyle’ as the IMDB would have you believe. I might also point out here that executive producer Chris Watson’s role as ‘James’ - whoever that is - is credited to his own name and not, as claimed in IMDB-land, to the pseudonym ‘Chuck Fonda’.)

This whole sequence lasts about twenty minutes, including some excellent editing of scenes where ‘The apparition’ (Andy Battmer, whose farmhouse was actually used), a silent bloke with a big knife, appears and disappears from view. The central premise - both men think the other is a murderer: which one is right? - is clever and adroitly handled but once we do find out who was telling the truth, the dialogue descends into pseudo-mystical gibberish about, well, lost souls and evil thoughts. “Evil attracts evil,” intones Estevez solemnly.

Returning to the framing story, that too swirls down into a pit of portentous but meaningless dialogue, some of which is deliberately repeated from the farmhouse story. There is more dreamlike stuff and eventually Karla escapes, heading back to the University to write this all up in the campus newspaper (and presumably to call the police and arrange a couple of funerals). There is just time for one final shock which makes as much sense as any of the previous ones, ie none at all.

The editing, as mentioned, is often terrific, especially in the transitions between one reality and the next as characters step through a door to find themselves somewhere else entirely. Editing is credited to Mark Adams ‘with’ Michael Fritz and Steven A Grainger (writer/star of horror spoof Come Get Some! and its sequel Come Get Some More!). Unfortunately the camerawork is less impressive and the lighting almost haphazard, displaying a complete disregard for such concepts as ‘day’ and ‘night’. Several times the three students prowl down a corridor, flashing a torch despite the place being as bright as day. The most egregious example of this is one scene where there is apparently (in fact, evidently) enough light for Bobby to take photos without a flash, yet Karla feels the need to shine her torch ahead into the bright sunlight.

When not on screen, Crawford was responsible for bloodying up the handful of non-speaking ghosts/zombies - she can be seen doing this in the DVD extras - and gets due credit as ‘blood technician’. To stop the other actors from being left out (and possibly to pad out a credit roll that would otherwise mostly feature his own name) Adams has given courtesy credits to McCaffery (‘key grip’), Allen (‘head gaffer’) and Mazouch (‘best boy’).

The IMDB credits Josh Barnett and Max Kreutzer with make-up but on-screen only Tracey Adams (the director's wife, I assume) is ‘make-up consultant’. Mark D’Errico (Pot Zombies,Vampire Whores from Outer Space) provided the music for this version while the score for Lost Souls was created by Kerry Marsh, now a big name in jazz vocal arrangements. Michael Compton gets the somewhat involved credit ‘ghost/monster sound effects consultant and re-mix technician’.

Mark Adams has been making films since he was a pupil at Pembroke Hill School in the early 1980s and continued as an undergraduate at Kansas University. His other features include Deathgrip, Timeline, Omega Red and Sidetracked and he also worked on a few professional productions including Princess Warrior. Chris Watson and his regular production partner Andrew J Rausch are credited as executive producers on this movie and Watson also gets a ‘second unit director’ credit which presumably refers to the handful of frames of Brooks, Spudic et al. The cast also includes Len Kabasinski (writer/director of Swamp Zombies, Curse of the Wolf and Fist of the Vampire), Kara Benelli (Cleveland in My Dreams) and Brock Short (Zombiegeddon).

The farm scenes were shot in July 2002 with Estevez, originally intended to to play Brad, switching to the smaller ‘farm owner’ role when an over-run on the other film shooting that weekend left not enough time to shoot all the Brad scenes. That film was Zombiegeddon, in which Mark Adams appeared with Robert Z’Dar (Maniac Cop) as a couple of detectives. Z-Dar had originally been considered for a role in Minds of Terror, and Zombiegeddon was directed by Chris Watson. I told you it was complicated.

The Stoneridge scenes were shot the following January with Lost Souls (Adams’ version of the feature) premiering at a local college later that year. Minds of Terror (Watson’s cut) finally surfaced at a one-off screening in Los Angeles in March 2005 (though it retains a 2003 copyright date). The film then disappeared into limbo until the summer of 2007 when Chris Mackey, webmaster of the Guestar B-movie website and director of Boot Hill Blind Dead, picked it up for DVD distribution. Chris (who worked with Chris Watson on Evil Ever After) has set up a MySpace page for Minds of Terror and is selling copies through eBay. The DVD includes 15 minutes of behind the scenes footage, 15 minutes of cast interviews, seven minutes of bloopers and a trailer which jointly credits direction to both Adams and Watson.

When all is said and done, Minds of Terror is a fun little Z-movie with a few clever bits in its favour and a few less clever things to its detriment. It doesn’t have pretensions and it features a cast and crew (all one of him) with some skill and talent. Whether Lost Souls is better or worse, whether it makes more sense or less sense, I can’t say. But Minds of Terror is a credible effort which succeeds in making something out of (almost) nothing.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 13th September 2007

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