Movie Review: “Mindhunters”

Our fourth and final film for this edition of the series is the 2004 film Mindhunters. This is not the Hannibal Lecter film Manhunter nor is this the fantastic crime series from director David Fincher called Mind Hunter, this is Mindhunters. Mindhunters is a crime slasher film. I am not entirely certain what to expect from this film, but I am interested. I know what a crime film is. I know what a slasher film is. I do not know exactly what to imagine from a crime slasher, however. The closest thing I can think of to that is, perhaps, maybe, the Saw franchise, kind-of, maybe, I mean, I know it is a stretch to call Jigsaw a slasher villain, so you can understand my plight. Is it a whodunnit akin to Scream but with detectives? I am uncertain, but I am intrigued. The film received negative reviews from critics and was a box office failure, receiving a 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and a box office return of 21.1 million off a budget of 27 million, which means you can likely assume it still hasn’t broken even yet. This is a bit of a droll way to end the series, isn’t it? Did I mention it stars LL Cool J? I was looking forward to it from the moment I decided I was talking about Renny Harlin, personally.

Written by Wayne Kramer, who has writing credentials in several other lesser known crime films, and Kevin Brodbin, who wrote the screenplay for that Constantine with Keanu Reeves.

Not to enter a tangent, but I have to say that going through Renny Harlin’s filmography for this series was a real reminder of how much I hate the film industries shift from physical media to streaming services and how much of a burden something that was once unbroken, if, at times, inconvenient has since become. Before Netflix, we went to our local video store like Family Video or Blockbuster, but, nowadays, all those companies have gone out of business. I can accept that. Personally, I had a vested, emotional attachment to Family Video and was sad when I watched my local store close down, but I understood why it had to happen. Things are expensive, and when you have the opportunity to stream things for a much cheaper cost, I would still make the same mistake twice if I could do it all over again. As much as I like the idea of a physical building for renting movies, the cost and return on investment as a consumer simply wasn’t there. Even now, I had the option to rent a digital copy of Deep Blue Sea for $3.99 and I laughed, instead buying a combo pack of the first three movies for $7.99 on DVD. It would have been easier could I have simply watched it on the Max streaming service, but, as of today, it isn’t in rotation. It was a few months ago, not this month. Same with Mindhunters, I could have watched it on Paramount Plus a few months ago, can’t watch it now. Used to be on Tubi TV! Isn’t anymore. Fortunately, I found Prison for free on YouTube and I already own four different A Nightmare on Elm Street box sets.

I don’t know what the point to what I am yammering on about is, maybe this is my old man screaming at clouds moment, I just wish digital rentals were $0.99 or that I didn’t currently have five or six different streaming services being charged to my debit card every month.

Anyways, I found Mindhunters streaming on the Brown Sugar streaming service (one week free trial!).

If you are director Renny Harlin, what is Mindhunters for you? He is about five years removed from Deep Blue Sea, and things aren’t particularly going all that well. Whereas, we came to an understanding that Deep Blue Sea was at least a modest success, his 2001 film Driven making 55 million from a budget of almost one-hundred million was absolutely not. History serves to remind us that sometimes even the best filmmakers fizzle out. We all love John Carpenter, but his only contributions to cinema since the turn of the millennium were The Ward and Ghosts of Mars, both critically hated and ultimately forgotten. Tobe Hooper broke out strongly with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, but the Toolbox Murders remake or Djinn didn’t exactly receive a lot of love. I don’t know if it’s what happens when a filmmaker gets washed up or has too many expensive misfires to warrant second-chances, or gets given the short-end, but sometimes filmmakers get dug into a hole that is hard to dig ones’ way out of.

For all intents and purposes, Renny Harlin is doing fine. He has since directed some modest hits in China, his home-country of Finland, and has, of course, a trilogy for The Strangers series coming out. For all we know, Harlin may even be in for a career renaissance.

However, for this exercise, where I only focus on the horror and horror adjacent films, things may look a little bleak. Every film leading up to The Strangers will either be a horror film I had never heard of, or, in the case of the Exorcist: The Beginning, a retooled version of someone else’s film already completed film. As crazy as it sounds, I am actually looking forward to it.

Whereas Deep Blue Sea feels like it did not play to my particular wheelhouse, Mindhunters, on the other hand, is exactly that. If there is anything at all I love, it is a moody, melancholic crime-thriller, a glib, gritty film about serial-killers? Sign me up!

Early on, I am met by some familiar faces. Christian Slater is in this, so is Val Kilmer. The guy who played Jordan Chase in Dexter? He’s in this. So, this isn’t some kind of no-budget film. The film cost $27 million to make, adjusted for inflation, that is about what they spent on making It Chapter One.

The cinematography in the opening scene is on point, if a little stylized. The music is moody, the sky is gray, and everything feels thematic. Turns out, this is on purpose! As we now discover that the events unfolding, which include a shootout, are actually a part of mock crime scene, with dry ice and moody music actually playing in the background. The film follows a group of FBI profilers in training that are tasked with tracking a serial killer in-order to pass their exams. As you can likely surmise, things become a little too real for them by the end.

After the first half hour, I am buying what the film’s selling. The initial scene was fun and different, and although, nothing of what’s come so far has been groundbreaking, all of it has been enjoyable. Val Kilmer plays the grizzled, cynical teacher really well, and I can appreciate all the effort going into the score and cinematography. This is a movie’s movie, so to speak, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion. It feels like what you’d expect when you put in a detective film, albeit, with the added twist of it happening under the guise of an exam. It feels glossy and polished, with a high-production, manufactured ‘grit,’ and although that doesn’t sound good when I say it like that, I’m enjoying it.

The setup of having the characters intermingling on a deserted island filled with props and mannequins is a horror film’s wet dream, and it does nice to accomplish this House of Wax meets Seven style vibe to it.

Thirty-two minutes in, the film offers what is, frankly, one of the most ridiculous death scenes I have seen in a serious film in a long time. Two minutes later, it offers a ridiculous slow-motion explosion. For me, these back-to-back moments were like the film’s promise depleting out of it like air from a balloon. They were so sudden and so cheesy looking that I had whiplash. So, okay, the execution in those moments wasn’t ideal, but the buildup to them and the ramifications of what happened are good. Basically, this is the film’s way of thrusting us into the main story conflict. They went from investigating a faux serial killer and, now, they are on an island with a serial killer wreaking havoc. I’m good, we’re good, it’s good, we’re back.

The dialogue is, at its best, decent, and, at worst, when LL Cool J says “Eenie, Meanie, Minie, Moe, who’s the next motherfucker to go?” Sometimes the reactions from characters feel too understated, sometimes they feel too unhinged and over-the-top for a group that you’d think would have more ability at staying composed under high pressure situations.

Something I have come to learn, now fifty minutes into the film, is that it is once again starting to feel like an action film. At its core, this is a junk food interpretation of serial killers. Although, in some form, presented as such, this isn’t meant as a realistic depiction. Mindhunters isn’t David Fincher’s Mind Hunter, looking at real-life serial killers. I compared it to Seven earlier, but I’d actually say a better comparison would be to say that it is comparable to a film comparable to Seven, as in the Saw films. That’s what Saw, and frankly, Seven, ultimately are, is junk food serial killers. They aren’t depictions of what serial killers actually are, but, rather, what we’d like serial killers to be for cinematic purposes. If you want realistic serial killers, I’d recommend Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The House that Jack Built, or The Golden Glove. This is more your super genius madman style of cinematic killer. The ones’ who can turn everything into a Rube Goldberg machine or are always thinking eleven steps ahead. Couple that in with the guy who made Die Hard 2 or Twelve Rounds (which is, incidentally, a film this reminds me a lot of), and you have an idea of what to expect. This isn’t a crime slasher horror film. This isn’t a slasher film anymore than the Saw films are. Although it is bloody and grotesque, it shares as much DNA with an action-thriller as it does the average film out of the horror genre.

As the credits roll for Mindhunters, I will concede that it wasn’t without more than a handful of problems, in-terms of dialogue and certain less than stellar special effects. Likewise, the story is a little self-indulgent, predictable, and thinks it is smarter than it actually is. That in mind, I did enjoy it a fair bit. The cinematography is decent, the setting is a cool idea for a horror film, and it has a couple of entertaining moments to boot. This feels, honestly and truly, like it came from the Book of Saw, for better and for worse, and I would argue that, pound for pound, it is likely the best overall film that I have talked about across this entire Podcast in my opinion.

I still definitely liked and will remember the fourth A Nightmare on Elm Street more than I will this film, but a lot of that is because it happens to have a character I am already enamored with. This tried to do something twisty, fun, and a little different, and I enjoyed that.

So, where does that leave us on The ‘Bib?

Renny Harlin started his career by directing the modest, but enjoyable film Prison, a film that deservedly earned him the opportunity to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, a box-office success and a worthy entry in the Elm Street franchise. After, he went onto direct a rather middling shark movie called Deep Blue Sea, one that I may not have enjoyed, but was successful enough to warrant a couple sequels and a certain level of reverence. In 2004, he directed Mindhunters, a box-office misfire and critical failure that I would actually wager is his best horror or horror adjacent film so far. Obviously, I still like the fourth Elm Street more, but, in this exercise, knowing that a large portion of the death scenes in Elm Street were filmed before Harlin was hired on, how can I not argue that Mindhunters is a better display of ability? Although I wouldn’t call any of these films great or necessarily above average, I did legitimately like three of the four and that isn’t too shabby.

Rating: – 2.8 out of 5.0