If the commercials for this week’s release The Cabin in the Woods are any indication, the Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard thriller involves researchers seeing how young, attractive people react to oddities that occur as they stay in the cabin in the woods.
In response, The Weekly Listicle will take a look at the test subjects instead of the scientists. Matthew Newlin, Dan Fields, and I will discuss movies and television shows about people forced into experiments and existential puzzles that make them ponder the reality of their realities. Sometimes they come face-to-face with their tormenters, sometimes their overlords remain merely spectres, but when done right, this Philip K. Dickian scenario can create a lot of intensity and bring up a lot of questions as we watch the protagonists struggle to avoid the wrong button and dead ends.
A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Unlike many of the other characters on this list, A Clockwork Orange‘s Alexander DeLarge volunteers to be part of his experiment, although he isn’t given full knowledge about the treatment he will undergo. Only understanding that the Ludovico technique will permit him to leave prison in a fortnight, he readily submits to his regimen of vitamins and films.
Carefully observed, he’s straitjacketed into a chair and forced to watch movies of rape, murder, and atrocities. Without understanding how, he finds himself violently ill from the images and ideas that had previously brought him so much pleasure. While viewing war scenes, he finds himself alarmed by the background soundtrack of Ludwig van Beethoven (his favorite composer), understanding that his favorite music will soon elicit the same horrified response in him as crimes do. Upon hearing Alex scream out “it’s a sin!” to use Beethoven in that matter, his doctors find his reaction curious but maintain a detached attitude and continuing playing the film, soundtrack intact. Later on, Alex becomes a rat in another maze as former victim Mr. Alexander, along with his friends, torments the patient by locking him in a room while blaring classical music and listening to his cries of pain.
Despite my dull recitation of the facts, A Clockwork Orange is probably my all-time favorite movie. Featuring director Kubrick and star Malcolm McDowell at their best, A Clockwork Orange is an amazing, powerful, and iconic film that needs to be watched multiple times to be fully appreciated.
The Twilight Zone: Five Characters in Search of an Exit (dir. Lamont Johnson, 1961)
The Twilight Zone, well the original incarnation at least, forced us to consider our concepts of existence. The series was never about the twist, it was about how human beings would react in a world where such twists could happen. As one would expect, the show occasionally dealt with people as playthings for overlords.
But in the disconcerting “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (one of my personal favorite episodes), we deal with test subjects lacking a master. A clown, an Army major, a hobo, a ballerina, and a bagpipe player wake up in a giant, metal, circular room without any knowledge of their identity or their past, and they are unable to reach the outside world. All they know about themselves is based on the uniforms they are wearing. After arguing about the nature of lives in an intense and serious way rare for television, they stack themselves into a tower so that at least one can escape their tomb and hopefully, tell the others where they are. The Major makes it out, only to discover that they are nothing but toys in a bin waiting to be donated to an orphanage.
Don’t expect some happy, Buzz Lightyear claiming his identity moment.
The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998)
Just before the inundation of reality television, director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Niccol posed the scenario of a man, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who lives his life blissfully unaware that he’s on television 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Under mad, God-like producer Christof (Ed Harris), Truman has been kept in his carefully controlled environment for his entire life. His parents, friends, and wife have been cast, and the producers attempt to provide everything to Truman so that he may live this pseudo-perfect life. The ways in which they manage to accomplish these things are mostly interesting and well done, but the movie loses some of its impact when it leaves the studio and the control room.
However, as people are apt to do, Truman begins questioning the world he lives in, spurred on by a spotlight falling onto his doorstep. As more things rouse his suspicion, the walls of his universe start to collapse, and his paranoia begins to blossom. Accepting that everything he’s ever known is a lie, Truman experiments with free will and decides to escape from his captors.
Surprisingly on IMDB’s top 250 list (at #221 at the time of this writing), the comedy-drama The Truman Show is one of Jim Carrey’s better efforts (though his best remains Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It was also the film that first really showed the public that Carrey could do more than play the goofball, as the underrated and low-grossing The Cable Guy from 1996 hadn’t yet acquired the appreciation it deserved. Over a decade later, Carrey continues to do his most interesting work in odder films. Sometimes they work (I Love You Phillip Morris), sometimes they don’t (the catastrophic The Number 23), but at least they aren’t Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas, 1998)
Unfortunately overshadowed by The Matrix the following year, Dark City is a remarkable science-fiction film dealing with humans beings used as test subjects. In this film, our masters are a dying race of creepy aliens who kidnap a number of people and put them into a sunless city with mixed-and-matched architectural styles from different eras. Fascinated by the human memory and our souls, they want to learn more about us in the hopes that our individuality will save them. The aliens (led by Rocky Horror‘s Richard O’Brien) wipe people’s minds and give them a hodgepodge of new ones to see how the interplay between different life experiences will affect the human being. Every “night” at 12, the whole world goes to sleep. When it wakes up, everyone could be completely different. The entire world could have been created only minutes before. A person in their 30s could have been born only seconds earlier. Although the end feels a little weak and rushed (though I have to give them credit for clever use of a montage), Dark City is nevertheless a stand-out sci-fi noir that never forgets that it’s about something– what makes us human and what makes us individuals. The film stars Rufus Sewell as amnesia-stricken possible killer John Murdoch who begins to realize the truth about existence, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, and an amazingly weasely Keifer Sutherland.
However, the biggest mystery related to Dark City is Alex Proyas. Although his first film The Crow gets the most attention (for reasons probably related to Brandon Lee’s death), Dark City is a visionary and intelligent film with good use of miniatures and practical effects, as well as CGI. The set design, art direction, props, costuming, etc. combine to create a fully fleshed out and visually astounding world. Watching the movie again 14 years later makes you wonder what happened to him. If Dark City is any indication, Proyas could have been one of those directors like Darren Aronosfky whose next work is met with unquestioned excitement (by the online community). At the very least, there should calls for him to take over one of the many superhero franchises bouncing around. Instead, I Robot? Knowing? I wouldn’t doubt that there’s some horrible true Hollywood story involved, or maybe there was a real person responsible for Dark City whose name is only known to a select few, but this was a movie made by a genuine talent who seemingly hasn’t had a chance to prove himself since.
Exam (dir. Stuart Hazeldine, 2009)
Ever had a nightmare about a job interview? Now you can relive that anxiety on home video. Stuart Hazeldine is a one-room mystery of exceedingly simple construction. A group of anonymous candidates have been sealed together in a windowless examination room. We learn that it is the future, and that a deadly virus has decimated the population. The exam is to test candidates for a top-level position with the drug company rumored to be developing a cure for the plague.
The proctor (Invigilator, I think he’s called) informs them that they will be given one question to answer, and lays out a few simple (if unconventional) rules about interaction and behavior, including the threat of disqualification for damaging their exam papers or addressing any member of the testing staff. Imagine the candidates’ dismay when they turn their papers over to find no question written on them.
How to figure out an answer when you can’t even determine the question asked? The answer is hidden in plain sight, but it sure takes a lot of mayhem to tease it out in the open. Meanwhile, there’s a ticking clock and some strange things about the room. Figuring out which of these is important, and how to utilize them, takes up one harrowing hour. Some candidates diligently chase the elusive question by manipulating their environment. Others simply resort to tricking or forcing their competitors out of eligibility for the post.
In any good (that is, entertaining) experiment, the subject has no idea of the trial’s true purpose. What seems to be a test of ingenuity, logic, and mental clarity sends most of its subjects into frenzied spite and desperation. The only approach to a problem like Exam’s is focus, and in the end it will win out. As endings go, this one is serviceable, and in plots like this the conclusion is seldom as interesting as the journey.
Don’t Look In The Basement (dir. S. F. Brownrigg, 1973)
Like most low-grade horror films of the 1970s, this nasty little shocker has been known by various titles, including The Forgotten, which might be more appropriate if less colorful. It played on double bills with Wes Craven’s notorious debut The Last House On The Left, though Craven’s robust future career would ensure the legacy of the latter film, whereas Basement is the best work director S. F. Brownrigg ever made. That does not speak well for his ability. Nonetheless, it does hint at a minor lapse in cosmic justice, as Last House, despite its status as a cult icon, is one of the most distasteful, boring, and unpleasant horror films ever made.
Don’t Look In The Basement, while completely lacking in polish and subtlety, is a perfect “guilty pleasure” diversion woven around an intriguing (if predictable) premise. Charlotte, a nubile young nurse, reports for work at a secluded mental hospital, where severely deranged patients roam the grounds in relative freedom as part of their unorthodox therapy. However, head physician Dr. Stephens (who hired her) is not present to greet her. We already know that Stephens was killed by a patient in a horrible “ax-ident,” and that his junior colleague Dr. Masters is keen to cover up the mishap, presumably for the sake of the hospital. She grudgingly brings Charlotte on to the staff, despite her curious hostility to outsiders in general.
Charlotte applies herself to the care of her charges, even as she discerns their vicious resentment of Dr. Masters, and as violent incidents begin happening every time the staff turn their backs. The moralizing, zombie-like “Judge” is the only patient we know has killed somebody, but it seems that he is not the only one with murder on the brain. Charlotte gradually deduces the dangerous nature of the experimental treatments devised by Stephens and Masters, but things really start cooking when she does the very thing that the title of the film warns her not to do.
The big twist is no big twist, at least not in this jaded age, and you can probably guess it by reading this synopsis. Fortunately, the film does not stake itself on a strong conclusion. It is a disturbing, consistently entertaining freak show of stock insanity, and its amateur quality does little to detract from that. Compared compared to worthy contemporaries such as Devil Times Five or Silent Night Bloody Night, it carries itself with surprising vitality and grim good humor.
The Game (dir. David Fincher, 1997)
Snuggled in between two of David Fincher’s most popular films, the outstanding Se7en and the perfectly respectable Fight Club is a modest but memorable entry called The Game. Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy Scrooge figure burdened by the traumatizing suicide of his father. Out of the blue, his estranged, ne’er-do-well brother Conrad (Sean Penn) comes bearing a gift. It is an invitation to play a mysterious “game” which is guaranteed to change his life.
Though skeptical, Nicholas makes an appointment with the game’s organization, Consumer Recreation Services, and signs up for whatever they may be selling. From then on, it’s never clear where real life ends and the game starts. Nicholas finds himself tracked, teased, terrorized, but never clued in to the real purpose of the game. After all, figuring out the object is the object. From a series of elaborate but only embarrassing pranks, the mayhem escalates to scandal and ruin.
As the cold, privileged industrialist has to tap his survival instinct for the first time ever, we begin dimly to see the point. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas smolders and simmers and scowls wonderfully. It is among his best performances, and as a Hitchcock-style man on the run he gets plenty to do. Sean Penn gets to chew lots of scenery too and squaring off as bros with little in common, they are very convincing.
Meanwhile, is CRS trying to teach Nicholas anything, or are they merely stealing his identity (well before that idea became fashionable) and driving him to an early grave? The mantra of this film is “just when you think it’s over…” When you wake up, are you still in the dream? That kind of thing. I won’t give away the ending, except to assure that the whole thing does not turn out to be a dream. Thank goodness. And Michael Douglas doesn’t turn out to be Sean Penn after all. Again, thank goodness. By cloaking the movie’s machinations in so much shadow, Fincher elects not to avoid plot holes, but to make them a moot point instead. If you’re willing to swallow the notion of a corporation with limitless resources, manpower, and cunning – I’m sure you’ve had to do it before, movie fans – the rest of the film shouldn’t give you problems. In fact, you should have a whole lot of tense, creepy fun.
The Twilight Zone, Episode 22: “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (dir. Ronald Winston, 1960)
Decades after its original run, Rod Serling’s series The Twilight Zone remains a bottomless well of fond memories. Choose just about any social topic for discussion and somebody will invariably pipe up with “Hey, who remembers the Twilight Zone where…” and so on. By couching humanity’s every flaw in terms of surreal fantasy and light science fiction, Serling created scores of timeless fables that stick in the mind and the heart.
“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” besides its uniquely unwieldy title, is especially hard to forget. Serving equally well as a keen satire of the Red Scare and as a broad reflection on cowardice and paranoia. The setting is Maple Street, USA. Just a typical picket-fence neighborhood of 1960. Claude Akins heads a cast of average folks, who appear to be getting along just fine as friends and neighbors until an unidentified object swoops overhead one day. All of a sudden nobody has time for the ice cream man. Something has arrived.
Soon after, the electricity cuts out on Maple Street. As do the telephone lines. As do the automobiles. No power. Stranded in broad daylight, the citizens begin to worry. Has this happened to the whole block? The whole town? The county? After some brief squabbling over the prudent course of action, a local handyman takes off to investigate neighboring streets. Meanwhile, a wide-eyed local kid begins filling everyone’s heads with tales of alien invasion and little green men hiding among us. The adults try to laugh it off but, strangely, can’t entirely.
Suddenly, lights and engines begin working again, but only in select households. Almost immediately, neighbor turns on neighbor, each accusing the other of being a dangerous alien. A rapid witch hunt ensues, until paranoid chaos all but guarantees a bitter end for Maple Street.
DANGER! PLOT DETAILS AHEAD! Spoiling Twilight Zone episodes is hardly the gravest of sins. They’re good enough to watch even when you know the inevitable secret of the final act. But if you’re still reading, no getting mad, okay?
There are aliens, parked just outside town. It’s all a big research experiment, prior to actual colonization. The prospective invaders have determined that rather than exercise superior force or firepower, all one need do to subdue the human race is to flick their lights on and off a bit. Once turned against itself, mankind will collapse on its own. The final exchange between the extraterrestrial scientists foreshadows a chilling end to the world: “Their world is full of Maple Streets.”
In Cube, director Vincenzo Natali’s mind-bending enigma of a film, seven very unlucky strangers wake to find themselves trapped within a seemingly endless maze of identical cube-shaped rooms. They do not wake up together, though. Rather, each begins navigating between the rooms with no real idea of where they may be going, eventually stumbling into another poor soul whose situation is just as bleak. (One of the most disturbing unspoken aspects of the film is how many other people may be in the maze who were not lucky enough to find companions.)
The characters come from all walks of life and don’t get along very well at all, but their common enemy, whoever they or it might be, unites them. They learn to test each room before entering as some are set with deadly traps that attack in a variety of ways (this early influence on the Saw films is unmistakable). With the help of Leaven (Nicole deBoer), a mathematics students, they are able to figure out which rooms are rigged with traps. Even though they can now move through the rooms more safely, they still don’t know where they are going or what their goal is (if they even have one).
Unlike many films in this list, Cube never reveals the entities who are behind the film’s central experiment. The film’s final image is ambiguous, at best, and though Natali supposedly shot a short film afterward which shows what is on the outside of the maze, he destroyed the footage and Blu-ray commentary is not likely to yield any useful insights. Essentially, then, what we have is a film with no answers, no reasons, no justifications. Just a puzzle for the participants to try to unravel while the experimenters (aliens? the government? Natali?) sit back and watch the fun.
ATTENTION: Here be spoilers!
The Shape of Things, directed by Neil LaBute and adapted by LaBute from his play of the same name, finds a schlubby college student, Adam Sorenson (a pre-leading man Paul Rudd), suddenly become the object of interest for a beautiful and mysterious grad student named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). As the two begin dating, Adam’s confidence improves significantly, leading him to change the way he dresses, acts and talks. His friends Phillip (Frederick Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol) notice the changes and, while some are acceptable, they seem to think he might be changing a little too much.
Neil LaBute has become famous for his profanity-fueled plays that typically address issues of masculinity, race and sexuality. The Shape of Things, like many of his works, is a punch straight in the gut when, in the third act, it become clear what has been happening to Adam. LaBute does not sugarcoat his work and many of his characters are downright loathsome without a single redeeming quality. The Shape of Things is no exception.
What is most interesting about the film, upon second or third viewing, is how obvious LaBute’s story was from the start. In the hands of a less talented writer, the audience could see the revelation coming from a mile away, but thanks to LaBute and his sly writing style (and tremendous cast), the big reveal is almost as sickening for us to watch as it is for the characters to experience. Unlike Cube, the puppet master of The Shape of Things is out in the open the entire time.
Oldboy (dir. Chan-wook Park, 2003)
In just a few short years, Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy has become a cult classic that has spawned midnight screenings across the country, a loyal fan base and an (ill-advised) American adaptation with Spike Lee directing. (Only Michael Bay would have been a worse choice than Lee.)
In the film, Oh Dae-Su (Min-sik Choi) is imprisoned for 15 years with no explanation for what crime he committed. Worse, he is not even in prison, where at least he would know where he was and the identity of his captors. No, his fate is much worse. He is held in a nondescript room by someone he figures he must have wronged in the past. But who? He slowly begins to lose his mind and just when he is on the brink of insanity, he is suddenly released not far from where he was abducted and told he has five days to figure out who kept him captive and why.
There are two aspects of Oldboy that, in any discussion about the film, immediately come up. First is the amazing, single take hallway fight where Oh Dae-Su fights 20 thugs while trying to uncover the secret of his imprisonment. The shot is brilliant not only for its stunning choreography, but the brutal violence Oh Dae-su willingly submits to in the pursuit of truth.
The second, and much more commonly discussed, part of Oldboy is the “twist” ending that is shocking in its depravity, but welcomed by the audience who, like Oh Dae-su, just wants the answer to the mystery. Oldboy is not only a great action film with several fantastic fight sequences, it is a terrific philosophical work with myriad underlying meanings and implications.