Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Killing Room: The Art of Deception

Science gone awry has a long, proud tradition in horror. Giant insects, monsters, evil scientists who kidnap others to resurrect their long-lost loves, to keep themselves eternally young, etc. This is the campy, operatic end of the spectrum. At the other end, the deadly-serious, really-fucking-disturbing end are more realistic examples of science gone awry - wartime atrocities or isolated experiments gone off the rails. These aren't just more plausible, they're based to one degree or another on real cases. People really did administer what they thought was a fatal dose of electricity to another person when ordered to, arbitrary assignment of people into "guard" and "prisoner" roles did lead to abusive behavior and nervous breakdowns, and scientists really did straitjacket patients, administer massive doses of LSD, and play tapes of themselves confessing their deepest, most shameful secrets on a continuous loop.

As is often the case, the scariest shit is the stuff that actually happened.

So that's part of it - there's pretty much nothing we can dream up that something worse than that hasn't actually happened. The rest of it, I think, is the public's understanding of experimental research. There's a common belief that experimentation equals deception, that there's always an elaborate lie involved. The truth is much more mundane, but that's neither here nor there. The myth is plenty powerful and can make for great horror when done well.

As it is in The Killing Room.

The movie opens with military psychologist Emily Reilly reporting for her first day of work. We see her walking past nondescript structures, it looks like a warehouse district. We hear her job interview in voiceover. Emily has been chosen by project head Dr. Phillips for her ability to analyze facial microexpressions - very subtle changes in facial musculature that can give away otherwise undetectable emotional states. This wasn't invented for the movie. This is a real thing. This is a plum job for Reilly - Dr. Phillips is a pioneer in this field, she'd be learning from the best. It's odd, though - here's one of the best in his discipline, and he's running a study that isn't attached to any of the usual agencies. A faceless facility, in the middle of nowhere, running what seems like a big project completely off the radar.

Reilly is shown into the control room - lots of operators running surveillance equipment, communicating with staff, making sure everything runs on schedule. The control room overlooks the experimental chamber - a stark white room furnished only with a table and six chairs. A cleaning crew is just finishing up, getting the chamber ready for the next group of test subjects. Reilly will observe them in action, read the emotions they're trying to hide. She observes them, Dr. Phillips observes her. The subjects are being tested, as is she. How badly does she want this job?

Four subjects are brought into the room and told that they'll be taking part in a multi-phase experiment. Each subject who makes it through to the end will receive a healthy (in fact, unusually so) cash payment in return for their time. There's no clue in the makeup of the test group - an older, confident man, a younger, nervous man, a quiet woman and a painfully shy, shabbily dressed man who may very well be homeless. Dr. Phillips politely explains the conditions of the test, calm, reassuring smile on his face. He makes promises. Then something horrible happens before we can even breathe.

The test is on.

Everything from this point on (as well as what went before) is up for grabs. We jump back and forth between the chaos in the experiment chamber and the quiet calm in the control room. The subjects search desperately for clues to their predicament, their panic efficiently translated in the control room into catalogued scenarios, their terror used as a marker in the experiment's progress. They are given tasks to perform, and those tasks carry with them their own agendas - or at least the subjects think they do. Games within games.

The situations with which the subjects are faced capitalize on human frailty in ways so subtle as to make the Saw movies look (even more) like shoddy, fumbling stabs at cheap shock cloaked as sermons (than they already do) and is often the case, man turns on man in an effort to prevail, in ways that are, amidst the science and reason and cool modernism, downright atavistic. This is a lesson we have learned time and again from science and from how science is conducted - nobody, subject or researcher alike, is immune to savagery.

The assumption of deception is strong at every level - the subjects have been deceived and are sure that they are currently being deceived. Reilly may or may not be deceived, at the very least the provenance of this research facility is suspect, and what's going on here is clearly some combination of illegal, immoral, and unethical. Psychologists have to abide by a code of ethics, but some of the most informative research throughout history falls outside of that code to one degree or another. Which is more important here? Is she the subject? Is this being put on for her benefit, to see if she can stomach the requirements of the job? It's a cliché to ask what is real and what isn't in a movie like this, but the story does an especially good job here of turning the situation on its head in ways we don't expect.

We, the audience may also be deceived - we are privy to the experience of the subjects and how their expectations diverge from what we see in the control room. We are privy to the experience of the people in the control room, and it might be its own experiment. We think we know what the purpose of the experiment is, but with every new event in the movie comes a new explanation, a new scenario, until we aren't even sure if the ways in which the experiment goes wrong aren't just yet more scenarios implemented as part of a larger study. Games within games within games.

Just when we - and Reilly - think we know what's really going on, what the point really is,  we realize all of the little lies don't add up to the big lie we thought we saw coming.  None of it seems all that implausible - the subjects do what you imagine people would do in this situation, we are lead down the path to what we think the conclusion will be, but it isn't. In fact, the answer was always right there in front of us.  As is often the case in psychological research, the point isn't nearly as elaborate as the subjects think it is . 

The movie ends as it begins, with a cleanup crew getting ready for another group of subjects, radio chatter from the control room, methodical, professional, calm. The calm is the worst part. The banality of evil. I am reminded of the words used as instructions in Stanley Milgram's obedience study…

"The experiment requires that you continue."

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  1. Sounds chilling! I have to see this!

    Have you ever considered posting purchase links to movies (i.e., DVD's) after your posts? I often read your reviews and think, "I have to see this" but then have no immediate recourse for that. I suppose I could Google/Amazon search like everyone else, but why not save readers that step?

  2. I got this from Netflix this very week, drawn in by the fact that it starred Timothy Hutton. I knew almost nothing else about it before it showed up at my house. I liked it quite a bit.

  3. I concur with Cosmo on both counts.