The Mind Benders is exactly the kind of film that makes me feel grateful to be living in the age of the DVD, the Blu-ray, and streaming video. Directed by Basil Dearden and originally released in 1963, it’s a strange little film that explores what was then a trendy topic (the effects of sensory deprivation on the mind, as presented in a popular novel of the day) in a way that’s both disturbing and memorable. Yet because it’s such a weird film, and doesn’t fit easily into the usual commercial categories, it’s hard to imagine it anyone bringing it back to theatres today, outside of the kind of revival series that you generally see only in big cities. But it’s a totally satisfying film to watch in the comfort of your home, and, as is also the case with many American B-movies (The Mind Benders was made in Britain but released in the U.S. by American International Pictures, as a double bill with Operation Bikini), it can go places that big-budget studio films can’t.
The story begins with a distinguished professor (Harold Goldblatt) throwing himself off a train. His shocked colleagues find large sums of money in his briefcase, and a police investigation raises the possibility that he was a Russian agent. His colleagues suspect that participation in sensory deprivation experiments had affected the professor’s mind, and one of them, Henry Longman (Dirk Bogarde) volunteers to undergo similar experimentation in the hopes of clearing the professor’s name. The idea, which sounds legally as well as professionally dubious to me, is that if they can brainwash Longman into hating his wife, that will demonstrate that the first professor could have been brainwashed into doing whatever he did.
Longman and his wife Oonagh (Mary Ure) have a very happy, and very sexual, relationship when the story begins. They live in a big rambling house with a pack of children, and it’s rather amusing today to see how hot-and-heavy sexual attraction was portrayed on screen in the early 1960s. Longman is subjected to some intense brainwashing, which at first seems not to work at all, then proves to have worked all too well. His colleagues are shocked, shocked, shocked that their attempt to disrupt a marriage actually disrupted a marriage, and try to set things right. Ure really carries the film in this section, and her quiet dignity while describing the depth of her suffering final penetrates the rather dim minds of the scientists who belatedly realize that perhaps they shouldn’t tinker with people as if they were chemicals in test tubes.
The Mind Benders was originally sold as a midnight-movie sort of thriller, with implications of both unspeakable horror and twisted sexuality (look up the tag lines on imdb.com if you don’t believe me), and was originally released with an X-certificate, presumably based on some dialogue regarding a house of prostitution in Amsterdam, since the film is quite discrete as far as what it actually shows. The Blu-ray packaging follows this line of thought. It features a steamy photograph of Dirk Bogarde in passionate embrace with an unidentified woman, with the tag line “PERVERTED…SOULLESS! The most dangerous and different motion picture ever brought to the screen!” It touches on several genres (Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson have an interesting discussion on this point on the audio commentary track), but to me the real strength of the film is the way it captures the arrogance of the principal male characters. Did they not think at all about what it would mean to a woman and her young children if the family breadwinner was deliberately alienated from his family, in a day when women had little chance to earn a decent living, and certainly couldn’t do so while caring for a large family at the same time?| Sarah Boslaugh
The Mind Benders is distributed on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD by Kino Lorber. The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, plus the trailers for this and six other films.