I really shouldn't like Mind Ripper, but I do. The first half is terrible. It's bad enough to make you think the director and scriptwriters don't even understand the medium of film. However once the monster's shown up, the movie roars off into the stratosphere of "actually watchable".
The first thing to talk about with this film is its ancestry. It was originally going to be another sequel to The Hills Have Eyes, but taking that seriously would be like wondering what would have happened if Mary Shelley had made Frankenstein a vampire. The New Mexico scenery looks similar. That's about it. Wes Craven is the executive producer and gets a "Wes Craven presents" in front of the title, but this probably translates as "you've heard of my dad, haven't you?" since the producer and co-writer is his son Jonathan Craven. In both of those capacities, this was Jonathan's first and only film until more than a decade later with The Hills Have Eyes II (2007). That's probably a better film than this, but both have poor scripts. This one's more cliched and incompetent, but I prefer it for having better ideas and a better monster.
I'll begin at the beginning, which means I'm going to be rude about this film for a while. It's not actually horrible to watch, but it's entirely cliched and doesn't know what it's doing. Characters know information that they've never been told. Lance Henricksen is doing sinister experiments in an underground nuclear bunker, but then suddenly he's hanging out at home with his teenage kids and getting phone calls asking him to come back to work. What's that? He quit? Uh, guess so. Naturally the army want to create a super-soldier, although goodness knows why. Haven't they seen movies? Don't they know how these things always turn out? It's hard enough keeping control of even the ordinary soldiers these days, what with them shooting their friends and torturing Muslims.
Anyway, the super-soldier gets loose (d'oh) and kills half the team just in his first scene (d'oh), yet is immediately forgettable. You see, I think the film's trying to do the Gremlins thing of "you've only ever glimpsed the monster, ahahahaha", but they've screwed this up and instead made their monster seem unimportant. It doesn't occur to you to worry about him, because the film never gave him any attention. He's a minor detail. As a result even the killing scenes become bland, which is pretty much the ultimate crime in a horror film.
Then we have the cliched cast. There's a surly teenager (no, really) and his sister's boyfriend who never thinks about anything but sex. You know, because horny teenagers are an under-explored theme in horror movies. This would have been more forgiveable if it had given rise to some nudity, but it doesn't. There's a gratuitous shower scene early on in which you only see the soldier from behind. That's it. However the scariest bit is that these teenagers are more interesting than the soldiers. Things improve once the military have got themselves killed and instead we're watching teenagers, which probably violates some kind of law of cinema. However the first half of the film is unfortunately infested with the military research team, who again aren't actually horrible but equally never think to lift themselves above cliche.
The dialogue can be laugh-out-loud bad. "Let's get ready to rumble." A scared soldier with a gun jumps out at you from the dark and your only reaction is to say "this place is a psycho ward". Someone chooses the most ridiculous time to apologise for his showercam spying.
Then there's the direction. Soldiers argue about who's going to put their head up a duct, but the audience have no idea what they're talking about. What duct? A few moments later, someone reaches up into the complete darkness and... hey, whaddya know. There was a duct there all along! The scene might have had more tension if we'd been made aware of that a little earlier.
However on the upside, the actors are mildly interesting. There's the mighty Lance Henricksen and a young Giovanni Ribisi. We'd all queue up to watch Henricksen, but Ribisi also impressed me by bringing alive a cliched role. He's having fun. He's capable of being the most cheerful person in the room when he thinks it'll annoy people. "Don't puke; she's going to puke." The film tries to do father-son bonding, which probably should have been unspeakable but fortunately they've given it to two genuinely good actors. Of the women, Claire Stansfield is attractive in a Linda Hamilton way, while Natasha Gregson Wagner is fine when she's not emoting, at which point she becomes hilarious.
In other words, I shouldn't like this movie. That first half is vaguely watchable and at least looks like a proper film rather than direct-to-video rubbish, but that's the highest praise it's going to get.
However halfway through, the monster shows up and becomes the film's secret weapon. He gets dialogue! He has a vagina in his mouth from which a spike comes out and kills you. He's just some ordinary guy they found dying in the desert and injected with regenerative serum, but the ironic twist is that he didn't want to live even when he was a human. He'd tried to commit suicide. Now he's a brain-eating cannibalistic monster who looks like a muscle-bound Stephen King (i.e. ugly), yet he's infected with a virus that means he can't die. He's got Wolverine healing powers. He'll live for a thousand years. Nonetheless he remembers Henricksen with affection and has subtext suggesting sexual desires. He dreams about Henricksen's daughter embracing him and becoming a monster too. The film doesn't go all Phantom of the Opera, but there's a nice throwaway at one point when the monster and his female victim could be mistaken for being in a lover's clinch.
This guy is great. He does things like pulling his ears off and appearing to vomit up lumps of his own intestines. He's violently horrible, yet he's also the film's most sympathetic character. He's the Frankenstein myth made form, complete with a metaphorical father figure in Henricksen. It's a crying shame that the rest of the movie is so forgettable, because he's one of the best movie monsters I can remember. This guy will stay with you.
It's thanks to him that I like this film. Once he's up and hunting, it's all great. The film hits another gear and suddenly you've got rather nice scenes with Horny Boyfriend turning into a human being and Giovanni Ribisi showing that he'd been acting since he was nine. There's a clever bit where you don't know whether or not Henricksen's dead or not, since the laws of cinema would seem to suggest that he's alive, but the film's just thrown in a gross idea that would mean his children will have to mutilate his corpse if they want to escape. I'm a genuine fan of those last forty minutes. It's not high art, but it's a nice juicy runaround with a memorable monster and a reasonable cast, the deadbeats having considerately died.
If its first half had come second, this film would be bad enough to be legendary. As it stands, I have a lot of fondness for it. Anything bad you might have heard about it is true, though.