Ever since runaway horror sensation Saw twisted its way onto our cinema screens and inadvertently sullied the subsequent decade of horror by urging on an unseemly wave of torture porn, we’ve been inundated with a barrage of ‘people-wake-up-in-a-room’ horror films, most of which have crept out straight to DVD. Sure, it’s a genre that’s been present for decades (with Cube being one of the most ingenious interpretations) but it’s hard to get away from this sub-genre these days.
In the past month a new film in this vein shuffled onto DVD / Blu-ray shelves: The Killing Room. It’s joined here by The Experiment, a remake of the German film based on the true story of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. It would be easy to compare The Experiment to its predecessor, Das Experiment, but no prizes there for guessing the winner. Likewise, it’d be more obvious to judge The Killing Room against its more immediate kin such as Unknown, The Chaos Experiment, Breathing Room etc. But since they both share the theme of a somewhat forced and twisted social experiment with civilians stuck in a room and they both came out in the same month largely unnoticed by the general public – I thought I’d sit down one night and watch them back-to-back and then pit them against each other to see if either are worthy of your attention.
First up was this surprisingly well-made and taut thriller. It’s the latest from Jonathan Liebesman, who has previously given us the bland but promising Darkness Falls, the slick but horrific Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and the brilliant The Ring spin-off Rings. The Killing Room is his first to go directly to video shelves, and whilst it’s far better than I had suspected it would be, it’s not difficult to see why.
The entire film revolves around four civilians who opt into a psychological research study only to have the rug pulled out from under them in a brutal turn of events that leaves them stuck in a small room with a clock counting down and instructions to answer a series of simple questions with the promise that only one of them will leave alive. So far, so been there before. But Liebesman and screenwriters Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock really manage to pull an affecting and intriguing movie out of this tired premise, partly by leaving the purpose of the test ambiguous up until the final reel, but mainly because unlike most of these movies, you get to spend at least a third of the movie alongside the people running the show. Normally, I would chastise a horror / thriller film for pulling up the curtain and allowing you the time to judge and understand the perpetrators, as it simply dissolves the fear. Here, however (through a simple interesting set up that I don’t want to give away) they manage to build the tension all the more effectively because of it. Sure, it may not be as scary as it could have been but it’s a far more surprising and interesting movie, which is a rare thing to find these days in horror.
Things are also helped by an amiable cast including Clea DuVall (The Faculty), Shea Whigham (Tigerland, Splinter), Peter Stormare (The Big Lebowski) and Chloe Sevigny, who all give some of their career-best performances. Liebesman’s directing is crisp, confident, sleek and is backed up by a startlingly powerful score from Brian Tyler (Darkness Falls, The Expendables, Fast & Furious) that creates an immediate atmosphere from the opening shots, and continues to impress whenever it is employed.
There are problems, however. The film lags a little in places despite it’s brief run time of 96 minutes, and the ending reveal, whilst satisfying enough, is hardly the startling or exciting revelation that these films hinge upon to leave you as affected as possible. But the final few seconds do resonate as the credits pull up.
In the end this isn’t action packed or gory enough to really warrant a cinema release in our current horror climate, and it’s hardly a must-see film, but it’s certainly an effective and well-made little thriller that is worth checking out and is a real gem in the straight-to-DVD horror market.
Next up; The Experiment. The original 2001 German film is one of my favorite movies of all time, but I’m the one horror fan in the world who doesn’t actually mind remakes / reboots / re-imaginings, so I was actually looking forward to see how Hollywood could reinterpret this brilliant premise.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was a ‘failed’ experiment that enlisted a number of male volunteers to participate in a prison simulation experience where half the group would become guards and the other half prisoners. They were to remain in this state for 14 days whilst they were studied by unseen scientists and psychologists. Human nature took over, of course, and after 6 days of quickly escalating torture the experiment was aborted. The BBC tried to recreate the experiment a few years back with similar results.
Written and Directed by Paul Scheuring, this straight-to-dvd US remake is about as basic an interpretation of this psychologically fascinating premise as you could possibly get. Scheuring wrote the dire Vin Diesel flick A Man Apart, as well as a number of Prison Break episodes, and boy does it show. Opening with a montage of clips of creatures fighting each other, beginning with small microscopic bacteria and working its way through insects, animals and eventually humans, it’s clear that we’re in for a very forced and obvious adaptation of the source material right from the start. Things don’t improve much either with an horrendous script and a shamelessly manipulative score (from my once favourite film composer Graeme Revell) that work hard at ruining whatever tension the somewhat gifted actors and basic set up can muster.
Adrian Brody stars alongside Forest Whitaker and both of them do their very best to save this flick, apparently unaware of the cheesy monstrosity they’re participating in. Cam Gigandet (Twilight, Easy A) hams it up wonderfully and Maggie Grace even pops in for a couple of cameos as possibly the most insipidly forgettable love interest in recent memory.
This is a film so horrendously overplayed, so moronically dimwitted and simple that when the filmmakers need a way to show that Whitaker’s character Barris is enjoying his new-found power as a prison guard a little too much, the only creativity they can muster is to give him a raging hard-on. Literally. Complete with a slow pan down his (thankfully clothed) body as he revels in its horrifying magnificence.
The startling premise of the movie is so strong and fascinating that even this ham-fisted attempt at portraying it on screen is still irritatingly watchable and affecting, despite the aforementioned – and huge – flaws. It has a gloss and sheen that is pure Hollywood, and by the ending it’s hard not to be caught up in the increasingly frustrating and appalling situation that the prisoners find themselves in. But the ending dissolves far too easily and everything’s wrapped up in a confused sentiment that makes you wonder whether the writers had any clue as to what they were actually trying to say.
Who wins? Well, this is actually tougher than you’d think. Obviously The Killing Room is a far superior movie, but The Experiment is a far more involving and fascinating one thanks to it’s horrifying real life origins. So in all good conscience I will have to recommend that you track down The Killing Room for a strong and worthwhile slice of ‘people-wake-up-in-a-room’ thrills and then hastily go out and buy Das Experiment, leaving Sheuring’s pointless misguided title to gather dust on a prison libraries shelf somewhere.