British distro 101 Films have made a pair of rock solid Fred Olen Ray flicks available to stream for free via Amazon Prime UK. So before he goes and badgers them for a physical release, here’s Matty with a few quick reasons why you should watch these nifty and “conceptually similar” programmers.
Shot over twelve days in May 1997 and released on U.S. video and DVD as ‘The Capitol Conspiracy’ on 27th July 1999, PROPHET is the first of two conceptually similar sci-fi action flicks produced by Royal Oaks Entertainment and directed by Fred Olen Ray that would land on North American shelves within six weeks of each other, the pair united by their casting of distinguished B-movie leading men and plots about brainwashing. Of them, the Michael Dudikoff-starring Fugitive Mind, which debuted on tape and disc stateside on 14th September ‘99, is the better picture (we’ll get to that). However, the Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson-led Prophet isn’t without merit, ranking among Haunting Fear (1990) and Fugitive Rage (1996) (aka ‘Caged Fear’) as one of Ray’s darkest and most charismatic movies.
A weighty exploration of childhood trauma disguised as a twisty, biff-‘em-up/mystery hybrid, Prophet is buoyed by a compelling premise. Alas, the film struggles a touch with how to present it. Built from a story conceived by Ray himself, Prophet is the sole screenwriting credit of ‘Ron McKernan’ — no, not the Grateful Dead guitarist, but, presumably, a pseudonym for someone else (context: Ray directs under his ‘Ed Raymond’ moniker). Said screenplay is a strange mix, at once vague and elliptic yet screamingly obvious. In terms of the narrative’s mechanics, it’s more frustrating and sketchy rather than teasing. By contrast, the characters, their development, and where they fit within the entirety of the story might as well be satnav’d and signposted. Again, it’s a strange mix — and it’s Wilson’s protagonist, federal agent Jarrid Maddox (a wonderful ‘only in the movies’ sort of name), that’s the greatest casualty of such contradictory flip-flopping. For example, Maddox is confusingly assigned a case that the rest of Prophet’s ensemble know he was an unwitting part of (a nefarious government scheme involving POW camps, psychotropic drugs, mind-wiping, and telepathic children), which renders the supposed Big Reveal — pitched as a gut-knotting ‘surprise!’ moment — pretty anticlimactic.
Nevertheless, what’s good is really, really good. The Dragon makes a decent fist of Maddox’s angst as he discovers his true purpose, and his kickboxing prowess always impresses. Eschewing the deliciously showier razzmatazz of his and Ray’s preceding pair-up, the barnstorming Operation Cobra (1997), here, in Prophet’s copious scenes of action, Ray opts for a ragged, up close n’ personal style that infuses every bone-breaking punt with tremendous verve, and he and Wilson unload an array of robustly assembled stunts across a variety of budget-stretching locations. Undoubtedly, the cheer-inducing standouts are Wilson’s death-defying drop beneath a car during a parking lot chase, and him dangling off the side of a moving train as his brawl with a stern rival agent (essayed by Ray’s Friend of the Family II (1996) and Maximum Revenge (1997) star Paul Michael Robinson) spills onto the loco’s roof.
Cast-wise, Ray regulars and semi-regulars Robert Quarry, Arthur Roberts, Richard Gabai, and Chick Vennera submit typically solid supporting performances, and horror queen Barbara Steele is a pleasing addition as Maddox’s shady superior. The perpetually brilliant Rick Dean also appears in an extended cameo, and Alexander Keith — reuniting with Ray after the aforementioned Fugitive Rage, and replete with a striking, Mia Farrow-in-Rosemary’s Baby (1968) do — does a damn fine job as Maddox’s back-stabbing field partner. And that’s not a spoiler: in another minor plotting flub, it’s clear she’s a wrong ‘un the second a suspected perp carks it in her charge.
As well as sporting an identical line in existential rumination thanks to its Manchurian Candidate (1962) meets Total Recall (1990) footing, FUGITIVE MIND was lensed on several of the same sets and locations as Prophet (incidentally, a few of them can also be spotted in Ray’s Cyberzone (1995) and his salvage gigs Virtual Desire (1995) and Starhunter (1995)). Like Prophet, fear and paranoia are the driving force of Fugitive Mind’s story. And, like Prophet, Fugitive Mind also stumbles a smidge when it comes to its villains’ slightly muddy motivations. After all, if you can distill the problems with both films into a single criticism, it’s that their bad guys sure are fond of going right around the bloody houses to get what they want. The difference with Fugitive Mind, though, is that scripters Tripp Reed and Sean McGinly keep their remaining cards close to their chest, and Ray ekes an incredible amount of excitement from their succulent blend of Phillip K. Dick-tinged sci-fi and North By Northwest (1959)-flavoured suspense. American Ninja (1985) hero Dudikoff toplines as Robert Dean: an average Joe who learns he’s been secretly programmed to assassinate a senator trying to cut the funding for the type of dodgy experiments that rewired his cerebrum to begin with. Cue much running and shooting as Dean tries to get to the bottom of it, encountering Heather Langenkamp, Ian Ogilvy, and the above-noted Vennera on his travels.
The film’s tech credentials are superb. Bolstered by futuristic, Cronenbergian sheen, the cool and eerie sterility of Theo Angell’s photography lends Fugitive Mind a chilly ambience and subtly modernist look that Ray embellishes in its creepier passages — specifically, in the genuinely hair-raising sequence where a re-reprogrammed Dean receives his orders and rifles up. And, as an editing exercise, it’s tempting to rule Fugitive Mind as the best cut movie in Ray’s sprawling filmography. Having previously chopped and shaped a rare Ray dud — the Invisible Mom (1996) pseudo sequel, Mom’s Outta Sight (1998) — Michael Kuge’s splicing this time out is exquisite: impactful, rhythmic, and stunningly fat-free.