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BRAINWASH [a.k.a. Naked Weekend; Circle of Power] (1981; Just For the Hell of It).

Based on a 1972 non-fiction book entitled The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled by Gene Church and Conrad D. Carnes, this early gig for director Bobby Roth (who's currently helming sci-fi TV such as LOST and FRINGE) offers a disturbing glimpse into just how easily human beings can become manipulated sheep. Its source material exposed a frighteningly-abusive 'leadership dynamics' weekend held by Holiday Magic (a marketing organization that turned out to be a pyramid scheme) and the film sticks surprisingly close to this true story, with only the names and smaller details changed. Similar sadistic techniques were later used in Werner Erhard's E.S.T. therapy -- which, no coincidence, was at the peak of its crackpot popularity when BRAINWASH was made... The top employees of the high-powered Mystique ad agency each drop a wad of cash to attend a special 'Executive Development Training' seminar. Accompanied by their wives, they're bussed to a remote mansion and everything looks swell at first -- with dining, dancing, drinks, and no clue of what this weekend actually has in store. Once their defenses are down, the sexes are separated, with E.D.T.-head Bianca Ray (Yvette Mimieux) running the men's session (which gets the film's primary focus), while John Considine leads the women's. The objective is to "throw off the psychological shackles that bound your lives," and after signing away all of their rights, the grueling psychological shitstorm begins. Bathroom breaks are forbidden, they're forced to exercise until they drop, Bianca uses whatever means necessary to tear down their personal barriers, and anyone who disobeys is struck by her muscle-bound assistant (ex-Tarzan Denny Miller) or forced to strip in the center of the group (referred to as "The Pit"). Fat, butt-naked Buddy (Walter Olkewicz, TWIN PEAKS' Jacques Renault) is put in an animal cage and fed pig-slop, another is forced into a coffin (complete with burial!) and no one dares to object, out of fear that they'll be next in line -- even if it means beating and degrading their own colleagues. In the end, some are brainwashed, others resist and although it's difficult to believe that any halfway-intelligent individual would fall for this nonsense, just consider all of the half-baked religions and cults that people still flock to nowadays. The top-notch cast throws themselves into this unrelenting story, with top-billed Mimieux scary as hell as a domineering zealot convinced that this torture is for people's own good. Other victims include Christopher Allport and Cindy Pickett (as the most sympathetic couple), Tony Plana, Scott Marlowe, Carmen Argenziano, and Leo Rossi (playing, no surprise, a cocky asshole), while the most amusing moments belong to Julius Harris (BLACK CAESAR's Papa Gibbs) as one of the estate's servants, who watches these rich white folks and succinctly sums up the situation: "Crazy motherfuckers"... Alas, this thought-provoking feature suffered from a spotty distribution, with its title changed several times during its scattershot nationwide release (including the much more exploitative NAKED WEEKEND). And although the film had a Los Angeles preview in August 1981 (under its original title, MYSTIQUE), it didn't actually premiere in that area until over two years later, in September 1983 (as CIRCLE OF POWER).

© 2010 by Steven Puchalski.