In a post-apocalyptic 2037 an AI-dominated society keeps its citizens contented in a happy, secure virtual reality simulation. Judy (Marta Martin) is a young woman who becomes bored of the safe digital utopia and rebels against Infinisynth, the super computer that controls the organisation. For this she is exiled to the ‘real world’, a desert wasteland patrolled by disfigured cannibals known as ‘crawlers’. She is rescued from an attack by a lone human named Stover (Bruce Campbell) who explains how to survive in the wilderness. Before long however, they’re both captured and taken below ground, to a makeshift civilisation run as a religious cult by the sinister ‘Seer’ (Angus Scrimm).

The idea of humans living inside a computer simulation would come to mainstream prominence with The Matrix in 1999, but such a concept would already have been familiar to anyone familiar with the Red Dwarf episode ‘Better Than Life‘. Mindwarp mashes up its futuristic techno-dystopian trappings with the bleak, grimy, and ramshackle world run by the Seer. In fact, the majority of the runtime is spent in the makeshift squalor of the crawlers, so the film also pilfers liberally from Mad Max, the Mars sections of Total Recall, and The Hills Have Eyes. The result is a fair tribute to versatile and eccentric work from the department he give us VR pods resembling Barbara Hepworth sculptures, and the underground junkyard lair of the crawlers which looks like it was hurled together by psychotic Wombles.

This being a production of the short-lived Fangoria Films label (and one starring splatter favourites Campbell and Scrimm), Mindwarp doesn’t skimp on the gore. The special effects are satisfyingly squishy and tactile, and one scene in particular will still raise shock at the treatment meted out to a teenage girl who dares to try and help our heroes. With such scenes throughout, it sits uneasily with the general tone of the film. The brutality doesn’t mesh with the film’s campier elements as seamlessly as it might.  Still, Campbell is better than anyone at threading that difficult needle, and is here at the peak of his goofily handsome, mock-heroic peak and clearly having fun. Scrimm’s villain is more in the Christopher Lee mould, as seductive as he his villainous, far removed from his eerie Tall Man in Phantasm. Martin is a gamely defiant heroine, but lacks the charisma of her co-stars.

With some firmly established genre icons at the helm it’s a little surprising that Mindwarp is as obscure as it is. It sits nicely alongside such other oddball releases of the time that had found a more solid cult status, such as Hardware and Nightbreed. It is cheerfully excessive and hugely entertaining if you can surf the abrupt tonal waves. It’s hardly the most sophisticated exploration of the themes of simulated reality, but certainly deserves to be rediscovered by genre scavengers intent on unearthing all the lost horror gems from the period.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 22 Feb 2021