MIND GAMES *** USA 1989 Dir: Bob Yari. 93 mins
Derbyshire-born actor Maxwell Caulfield had the misfortune to get his big break in the 1980s with an unpopular sequel to one of the previous decade’s biggest hits. In truth, GREASE 2 has always been sorely underrated and he was genuinely unsettling opposite Charlie Sheen as the eponymous THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985), Penelope Spheeris’ grim study of disaffected 80s youth. MIND GAMES, a rare directorial effort by future Oscar-winning producer Bob Yari, is also a fine showcase for the good-looking young actor.
Confusingly marketed as a more conventional slasher-inflected chiller, this offers an offbeat hybrid of rites of passage, marital-misery drama and brooding psychological tension and pivots around a buff backpacker (Caulfield) who relishes the corruption of an innocent (“I can even turn him into a homosexual” he brags). Precocious ten year old Matt Norero happens to meet the charming, shirtless Caulfield while he’s playing his flute by the river (“I can teach you to blow” is a memorable line). Norero’s parents (Edward Albert, Shawn Weatherly) are trying to salvage their doomed marriage by taking him on a road trip from the West Coast to the desert. Early hints of Caulfield’s state of mind include ominous “jokes” about the Manson family, references to a Masters in abnormal psychology and obvious bitterness about his Georgetown high society parents. Things escalate when he tutors the kid in the art of breaking, entering and vandalising the nice houses of strangers and beats a dog to death with a pole.
A four hander unfolding on the road, with location filming adding considerable production value, this works best as a kind of dark-hued soap opera with quietly disturbing moments involving its unbalanced man-child antagonist – notably Caulfield snuggling in a sleeping bag with the ten year old. Weatherly is terrific as the wife and mother whose despair at being tied down and unable to fulfil her promising career as a designer is cannily manipulated by the physically attractive outsider. Albert has the least showy role but does well as the well-meaning Dad happy to settle into an unremarkable life in computer maintenance. Caulfield is perfectly cast, though the script’s turn to more conventional, overwrought thriller shenanigans in the final act results in a sadly unsatisfying resolution that undermines the complexity of what had gone before.
Review by Steven West