Raise your hand high and keep it up if, like me, you first encountered the concept of a sensory deprivation tank on the 1968 pilot episode of HAWAII FIVE-O. You remember, Asian super villain Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh, who also played a sinister foreign agent in John Frankenheimer's 1962 masterpiece THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), captured McGarrett (Jack Lord) and placed him in one of those tanks in order to torture him. McGarrett, floating in a completely dark tank full of water, had his eyes covered and his ears stuffed so that he could see and hear nothing. The isolation, the sense of being completely cut off from the world, was designed to slowly drive him mad. What a fiendish plan from Wo Fat, the modern day version of Fu Manchu.
The next time I ran across a sensory deprivation tank in pop culture was in Ken Russell's visionary science fiction/horror film ALTERED STATES (1980). Scientist William Hurt spends large amounts of time in a tank and when he combines the isolation with some really powerful psychotropic drugs, he regresses to a savage, primitive state, a feral cave man like creature. Part 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, part MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, ALTERED STATES featured spectacular make-up and visual effects and Russell's over-the-top style to create a fine, thought provoking film.
But imagine my surprise when I ran across a film on TCM the other night that predates both FIVE-O and STATES in its' use of a sensory deprivation tank as a plot device. THE MIND BENDERS (1963), is a British film that doesn't quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. It starts out like a spy thriller, with a scientist who had spent time in a tank, being brainwashed by foreign agents (Russians?), into committing some act of espionage before committing suicide. This leads government agent Major Hall (John Clements, winner of the Lyndon B. Johnson look-alike contest) to investigate the goings on at Oxford University where Doctor Henry Longman (Dirk Bogarde, looking like the love child of Desi Arnaz and John Forsythe), is still fiddling around with the tank. Okay, so it's not going to be a spy movie, it's going to be more of a science fiction film.
Except it's not. The film takes yet another turn into the realm of domestic drama. Hall and Doctor Tate (Michael Bryant), implant suggestions into Longman's mind following an extended period in the tank. Longman becomes a misogynistic misanthrope towards his wife, Oonagh (Mary Ure), which raises the question, is Longman reacting to the suggestions planted in his psyche or did the time in the tank bring his real nature to the surface?
THE MIND BENDERS is a sober, straightforward film, directed by Basil Dearden from a novel by James Kennaway. The cast is good and they are all earnest in their handling of the material. Trouble is, no one seems to know what this film is supposed to be. There's enough grist for the plot mill to make several different films here. The producers try to cover all of their bases, providing a movie that will appeal to both genre fans and more mainstream audiences but which ultimately disappoints both.