Human Experiments is immediately noteworthy for two reasons. First, it stars Linda Haynes of Rolling Thunder fame in one of her last roles before she seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. Secondly, the second lead is played by Geoffery Lewis, whose name you’ll never remember but whose good-natured face will be immediately recognizable to anyone who saw a movie in the 1970s.
The casting of an extremely talented leading lady and one of the most underrated character actors of all time (”He always used to play Clint Eastwood’s best friend, billed after the ape” Terror Tuesday programmer and host Zack Carlson said) lend Human Experiments just enough class to compensate for its various shortcomings — i.e., it’s total lack of budget. Haynes stars as a traveling musician who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets convicted for a series of murders she didn’t commit and finds herself in prison. Lewis is the sociopathic prison psychiatrist who psychologically torments his patients as part of theoretical (ahem, sick and twisted) recovery program.
Let’s just say that our heroine’s time in prison will leave her with a handful of incredibly traumatic scars on her psyche.
There are long stretches of Human Experiments where you almost forget you’re watching a horror movie; much of the film is spent observing the daily routine of living in a shitty prison facility. However, the film is a noteworthy (if not particularly outstanding) watch for any horror fan for two sequences in particular. The first involves Haynes stumbling into a home only to find the bodies of an entire family on the floor and young boy holding the smoking weapon. It’s a slow burning sequence that builds dread to a truly painful breaking point. It’s a true shame that most of the film can’t live up to the promise of this moment, only ten minutes into the movie.
The second scene of note follows Haynes as she enters the final phase of Lewis’ “program.” It’s an incredibly implausible scenario, one that places the character of Dr. Kline on the same ridiculous pedestal of the Saw series’ Jigsaw when it comes to having a grand plan that must be followed with ludicrous specificity in order to work. Ridiculous as it is, it’s chilling, sold by Haynes’ raw, unrestrained performance.
In fact, so much of Human Experiments is just enjoyable schlock that it’s kind of shocking just how strong the two leads are. Haynes gives the kind of brave and fearless performance that would win an Oscar if Oscars mattered in the slightest. Unafraid to be humiliated, unafraid to let to look like shit on the camera and unafraid to bare uncomfortable and painful emotions, Haynes makes you wonder why she had to vanish into an early retirement.
On the other hand, Lewis provides the yin to her yang. Cool, quiet and soft spoken, the real horror of Lewis’ villain is how professional he is. Behind that friendly face and those kind eyes lies a monster just waiting to escape. The closest comparison would be the casting of Dylan Baker is Todd Solondz’s Happiness: there’s nothing scarier than an everyman, a character actor, one of those reliable “that guys” of the movies turning out to be a the boogeyman.
As is occasionally the case when a film that asks to be taken seriously, the Terror Tuesday crowd was divided in their reaction to the film. Some found Haynes’ performance hokey, breaking into laughter during some of her more extreme moments. Others felt it was too slow and not enough of a horror film. Those people were wrong, but no one’s perfect.