Head Games (1996)


It’s the mid-nineteen-nineties and the prisons of New York City are suffering from severe overcrowding. A local tech company claims to have a solution: implant a computer chip into a criminal’s brain, and program it to change the behavior and personality of the patient, so that they don’t repeat their crimes and can return to society as productive citizens. As this is a secretive experimental procedure, they enlist the help of the prison warden and the prison psychologist to choose the best candidates and to get the patients quietly out of jail without the State noticing. 

Unfortunately for all those involved, the computer chips they shoved in these killer’s brains seem to have not gone through the proper Beta testing, because it doesn’t take long for three of the test subjects to get back up to their old, murderous tricks again. Now it’s up to the guilt riddled psychologist and New York’s finest to track down the three brain-fritzed killers before the body count climbs into the double digits.

Head_Games_2Something tells me the odds aren’t in their favor.

Head Games is a remnant of a familiar pattern to those of us who remember the VHS rental shelves of the 1990’s, that of filmmakers creating a sci-fi/thriller with an interesting premise, but with a rather midling execution. And that’s just fancy code for “it’s cheap as all hell.” But despite its flaws (its many, many flaws), it still manages to be fairly entertaining.

Head_Games_3Look at him, even he doesn’t believe the premise of this movie.

Head Games was made in the pre-Giuliani days of New York City, so in many ways it feels like a tiny time capsule of the time, one that would have you believe that there was a pimp on every street, a hooker at every corner, and that there was at least one adult shop and peep show right next to your neighborhood barber and family grocher. I swear, for a movie about multiple killers and societies attempt at a quick-fix for their psychological trauma, there’s more T&A here than your typical 80’s slasher populated by young, horney, nubile youths. Sometimes it feels like the movie takes a break and switches from a psychological thriller to a brief tour to some of New York’s more ‘off the grid’ destinations by taking us to both a brothel (where a guy gets his junk bitten off) and to an honest to god peep show, before it remembers “oh right, the plot” and switches back again. It is admittedly both bizarre and hilarious watching the characters react to some of these scenarios and knowing that while they feel exaggerated they’re also based on reality.

Head_Games_4No, you don’t actually see his junk bitten off. The movie spares you that one indecency, but only because it’s too cheap for those kind of effects.
Head_Games_5This might be a dumb question but, why would one bring a blow up doll to a peep show?… Scratch that. I probably don’t want to know.

Like a lot of straight to VHS releases, Head Games suffers from an obvious budget deficiency. If it’s not taking place on an actual street than most sets either look like they were thrown together, shot in convenient locations, or seemingly take place in a featureless void. For instance, at one point they want us to think the office of a well-to-do CEO is in the Exit stairwell. There’s also some noticeable sound issues in places (though some of that is the fault of the crappy VHS transfer) and a glaring lack of effects for a couple note-worthy scenes. The worst offender is likely towards the end where the brain-chip malfunctions so badly a guy’s head explodes. Or at least it’s implied that it explodes. You do actually see it, but it’s over in less than a second, a literal ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment. Considering all the boobs and butts the film was more than willing to show, the 0.25 seconds of gore feels like a real letdown.


Head_Games_7They probably just didn’t want you to see the wire mesh in their fake head.
Head_Games_8No, really. They want us to think that’s where her office is.
Head_Games_9You know she’s a good reporter, because she made the atmosphere as bleak as possible before the interview.

With all these noticeable defects, I was expecting the acting to follow suite. After watching it, well… while I wouldn’t say I was wrong, I will admit it was better than I expected it to be. The acting ranges anywhere from decent to downright bad. But I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s unwatchable, because while some of the acting is bad, it feels like much of the film was meant to feel that way. Like any good sci-fi-ish film with a ridiculous premise and little budget, Head Games seems to know that it needs to have a sense of humor, and unlike a lot of similar low-budget fare that tries to be funny only to fall flat on its face, this film manages to get more hits than misses. I credit a lot of that to the film’s use of more subtlety and sight gags. Similar films might resort to characters just acting stupid or by injecting forced slapsitck. But Head Games adds bits of levity by having perves run out of peep shows with blow-up dolls, or by having a character say they’re going for ‘a dip in the pool’ and having that pool end up being a colorful kiddy pool on the top of the roof…that they get into naked…for some reason. It sounds ludicrous and doesn’t always hit the mark, but for the most part it surprisingly seems to work.

Head_Games_10Yes, yes, I know. The reason is boobs. Shut up.

So is Head Games any good? Maybe? If you like cheap sci-fi/thrillers than it’s not too bad. It’s got some pacing issues and the characters are kind of tropey, but even with all its flaws I can’t say that it’s ‘so bad it’s good’ or even just outright bad. It has an interesting premise, a few amusing  moments, and a decent cast that seems suited to the oftentimes exaggerated elements of the script. But the low production values means it’s not going to be for everyone. If you enjoy old Sci-Fi channel movies and don’t mind all the T&A, than this might be something worth looking into.

Head Games is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

As far as I can tell it has only received a VHS release.



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