Human Experiments (1979, USA)
I’ve watched lots of prison movies; lots of similar stories and similar themes. But none, I think, quite like this.
Rachel Foster (Linda Haynes) is a singer. Not a very good one, but a singer nonetheless. She is driving at speed away from an unhappy gig in a hick town where she has been hit on and ripped off, composing music on the front seat (clearly the distraction-of-choice before texting was invented), when she collides with a straying pedestrian. She stops and enters the only house in sight to report the accident, and comes across three more dead bodies. Rather than run away, which would seem the sensible thing to do, she continues to go deeper into the house until she encounters a youth with a gun. She shoots him before he shoots her, and is trying to flee in the dead family’s car when the Sheriff arrives. The youth doesn’t die, but remains in a coma, and no-one can believe that he would kill his family. Rachel is duly found guilty of murdering all four strangers, is sentenced to life imprisonment, and is carted off to the Gates Correctional Facility.
She is soon introduced to Dr Hans Kline (Geoffrey Lewis), the prison psychiatrist, who has an unorthodox approach to rehabilitating offenders. He is also a man with unusual interests; his office is filled with butterflies and centipedes and cockroaches and other arthropods in jars and displayed on walls. “Entomology,” he smugly tells Rachel, and one is immediately suspicious because he doesn’t clarify with her that it has to be a fairly broad definition of entomology to include within it his collection of arachnids and myriapods. He is clearly untrustworthy.
His clinical program is accordingly portrayed as the work of a mad scientist, but seems to borrow heavily from RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall anti-psychiatry approaches a decade or so earlier. With the guarded approval of the warden (Mercedes Shirley), Dr Kline forcibly regresses selected prisoners into an infantile state… from which he hopes to rebuild them and raise them as law abiding citizens. In practice things haven’t gone so well; none of the women subject to his new therapy seem to have progressed out of semi-catatonic states. This doesn’t deter him one iota. Oh, and he murders one of them in a fit of pique after she displays infantile manners at the dinner table.
On learning that Rachel has no family or friends who might be aware of where she is, Dr Kline immediately sets about trying to add her to his program. He buys the dead family’s car and obtains a picture from the wall of the hotel room where she last stayed, to play with her mind. He gives her psychotropic drugs to use when she is most vulnerable… and when she tries to escape - during which she discovers the laboratory where the infant women are being kept - the full force of the good doctor’s live arthropod army is set against her, and she is seized and led away as if to be executed. She finally succumbs to these mind games and begins her regression, from which she is just starting to be resocialised when news arrives that the youth has come out of his coma and has confessed to killing his family. This is not news Dr Kline wants to hear and, fearing exposure, he commences Plan B…
Does Human Experiments talk to us much about the ordinary prison experience? Probably not, even though its theme of corruption - of wrongdoing not being reported to preserve self-interest - is far from uncommon in any era. Despite this, it’s very much a movie of its time… but it’s such a different prison movie it deserves to be better known.
Posted on September 28th, 2013 at 10:30 pm. Updated on September 28th, 2013 at 10:30 pm.
#177 in the Top 500