Movies about government psychological experiments like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or FIRESTARTER are scary because, more often than not, they’re believable. Not to sound like a nervous Nelly looking to hang tin foil over her windows, but come on, we know that our government conducts psychological experiments. We know that our government conducts psychological experiments that we don’t know about. And we know that a few of those experiments would probably freak us out.
Of course, in THE KILLING ROOM, Dr. Phillips (a perfectly cast Peter Stormare) goes to great lengths to explain to new “observer” Chloe Sevigny that the MK-Ultra program is in no way affiliated with the US government. Although the psychological research program was officially disbanded in the 1970s, it was kicked back into gear following 9/11. Sevigny, an adept observer who specializes is reading facial expressions, is required on her first day to watch a videotaped recording of an MK-Ultra experiment and report her findings to Dr. Phillips.
Most of director Jonathan Liebesman’s horror-thriller takes place in “the killing room”, a white-walled interrogation room with a steel table and six steel chairs, as four strangers gather to fill out an absurd questionnaire. The strangers have all answered an ad in the paper requesting subjects for a psychological experiment, and Sevigny watches as they sit on steel chairs in “the killing room”, with Dr. Phillips explaining that the experiment will last 8 hours, they will be paid $250 for the day, and that they will each be eliminated from the experiment…one-by-one. The subjects start doing the “$ per hour” math in their heads before that last part really sinks in.
When discussing plot in a movie review, the first 30 minutes of the movie are usually considered fair game, but there’s a really nice shock in the first half hour that I’d rather not divulge. Reminiscent of CUBE, but with a dark vision all its own, THE KILLING ROOM has the feel of a Stanley Milgram experiment put through a horror-movie meat grinder; it’s a crafty, finely-honed depiction of what might happen when the power of authority butts up against the will to survive. Most of the film’s focus is on the four subjects, with Timothy Hutton (apparently too lazy to change out of the black stocking cap he was wearing over on the LEVERAGE set) setting himself apart as the leader within the first few moments of the experiment. Sheepish Clea DuVall and a reticent, homeless-lookin’ Nick Cannon are happy to follow Hutton’s lead, with Shea Whigham cranking out a series of panicky, bug-eyed questions like a meth-fueled Paxton from ALIENS. Why are they here? How do they pass the tests? What is the goal of the experiment?
Not even Sevigny knows their purpose, but she describes what she sees in “the killing room” with growing awareness, until the answers finally begin to make themselves clear. Shot with claustrophobic intensity, THE KILLING ROOM reigns supreme during its first hour, as the characters panic and argue about which strategy they should use to pass their “test”, transferring an uncomfortable sense of complete helplessness onto the audience. Perhaps even more disturbing is the realization that MK-Ultra’s purpose is not to torture or maim these subjects, but simply to observe their actions in their quest for the perfect candidate. The film bogs down in the final third before kicking it back into gear for a revelatory twist and a killer final line. Shrewd, smart, and though-provoking, THE KILLING ROOM ultimately works because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Truly effective horror movies explore what we already fear.