Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme


Just about the only distinction this cusp-of-the-eighties exploitation picture (various sources date it to 1979 or 1980) ever earned was a spot on the Department of Public Prosecutions’ ‘video nasties’ list. It’s not exactly a ‘video nice’ -- and has the seamy, grubby, mean-spirited tone of many quickies which were tarred with the nasty brush – but it is among the more inexplicit horrors on the list. It’s as much a women-in-prison film as it is a mad science picture, and isn’t especially extreme for either genre; the fairly similar HELLHOLE was an uncontroversial post-VRA release in 1985. But it must have pissed off some clueless tape-renter circa 1984, earning a strident enough complaint to get it tagged. Otherwise, we assume someone official couldn’t tell the difference between HUMAN EXPERIMENTS and SS EXPERIMENT CAMP and swept it into the same actionable bin. It also goes by the titles BEYOND THE GATE and (blandly) WOMEN IN PRISON.

Opening in the manner of the woman’s-ordeal-on-the-road cycle of Jackson County Jail, blonde singer Rachel Foster (Linda Haynes) plays a one-night stand in a rowdy road house in the middle of nowhere. She brushes off the slimy advances of manager Mat Tibbs (Aldo Ray), who turns on a dime from patting her pretty-pretty hair to sneering ‘cunt’ at her back. The next day, Tibbs deducts most of her fifty bucks fee ‘for hospitality’ and she has no redress because the creep’s brother (Jackie Coogan) is the Sheriff. Driving off in a snit, Rachel nearly runs over a crawling, wounded person and goes to a house to call for help only to find several murder victims slumped around a dinner table and to get into a shoot-out with the youth who has just turned on his family. The head-shot kid goes into a coma and Rachel gets life in the local ladies’ prison. This is a more realistic institution than many in the WiP genre, with only a few token young, pretty cons amid unglam, hulking or elderly offenders – including veteran Lurene Tuttle as ‘Granny’, John Travolta’s sister Ellen as the conniving ‘Mover’, Marie O’Henry as the jive-talking black hooker and Wesley Marie Tackett as butch ‘Jimmy’.

After the regulation hosing-down and snarling guard scenes, there isn’t even much in the way of on-the-yard brutality or sexual activity. Of course, there doesn’t need to be since Warden Webber (Mercdedes Shirley) is weakly going along with a cracked program of experiments conduced by prison shrink Dr Kline (value-for-money mad-eyed loon work from Geoffrey Lewis) to break down criminals’ personalities to infancy through terror (as an amateur entomoligist and presumably unintentional disciple of Zé do Caixao, he dumps lots of bugs on them) and then raising them up again to adulthood as useful citizens. So far, he’s done better with the first part of the process, and has several subjects drooling in their cells, being spoonfed and taught to respond to verbal cues. Naturally, Rachel ends up going through the Kline process. A dangling plot-thread seems to connect the psychologist (or at least his car) to the initial family massacre, though this isn’t followed through. The crisis comes when the killer comes out of a coma offscreen and confesses, so the warden is told to let Rachel, whom Kline is trying to reshape as ‘Sarah Jane Walker’, out of jail. Kline tries to brainwash the girl into murdering the warden, but she resists and instead shoots up his collection of bugs in bottles and framed diplomas. This makes for a striking bit of business in semi slo-mo, but not as satisfying as having the villain, say, ripped apart Moreau-style by his experiments. Rachel resumes her singing career under the end credits, but keeps the Sarah Jane name.

Given that Lewis is a practicing scientologist and Travolta’s brother is also famously an adherent of L. Ron Hubbard’s made-up religion, there might be an agenda in this storyline. Scientology sees psychiatry as an enemy (or competitor), and the Church goes out of its way to make psychologists look as bad as the maniac therapist here -- though it also employs personality-destruction methods which might be equivalent to Kline’s experiments. However, mad shrinks are as old as Dr Caligari and crop up throughout pop culture in manifestations far from Hubbard’s profitable crackpottery, so it might just be a happenstance.

Director Gregory Goodell (who took his business to TV movies like GRAVE SECRETS: THE LEGACY OF HILLTOP DRIVE, TERROR IN THE FAMILY and DON’T LOOK DOWN)) co-wrote this with Richard Rothstein (who wrote UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and INVITATION TO HELL, directed the TV pilot BATES MOTEL and recently produced KITCHEN TRENDS 2005). Cinematographer Joao Fernandez started out in porn (including DEEP THROAT) but went mainstream with a bunch of Joe Zito films (including FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER) and Chuck Norris vehicles (including MISSING IN ACTION). The film has a few subtleties – Tibbs’s hair-touching gesture is repeated by Jimmy and Kline, and always sets the heroine’s nerves on edge – amid the crawling-through-mud-and-bugs business, but it’s mostly formula, ridiculous stuff and rarely works up anything like urgency. Whereas really ferocious American filmmakers like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper – or even Andy Milligan and S.F. Brownrigg – began far away from Hollywood and the regular film industry, Goodell is obviously a fringe Hollywood type; his actors have resumés filled with mainstream movies (Tuttle was the Sheriff’s wife in PSYCHO) and the production values are at least competent. He still can’t quite stage the shock scenes well enough – when the heroine strays into the site of a family massacre, there ought to be more impact but the film fumbles over business with her picking up a rifle so she can face off the junior mass-murderer in the living room. It seems unusual that a band called Lucifer and the Archangels should play a gig at a women’s prison, but HIMAN EXPERIMENTS has a weird Drive-In Movie need to cover all the exploitation bases and get multiple musical numbers in between its murders, shower nudity and creepy child-women.

Kim Newman

 

Directed by Gregory Goodell

USA, 1980 / 82 minutes / Colour / English language

VHS PAL (deleted)
Stereo audio

Deleted Pal VHS previously available on World of Video 2000

HUMAN EXPERIMENTS

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