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Cult Film: Das Experiment (2001)

das experiment

 My Rating: 8/10      IMDb: 7.8      Rotten Tomatoes: 72%          

Oliver Hirschbiegel, the director of Downfall (2004), presents us with a unique and often harrowing psychological thriller, which brutally exposes the darker side of human nature.

Das Experiment is based on the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, a study of the psychological effects of becoming either a prisoner or a prison guard in a simulated prison environment. Tarek (Moritz Bleibtreu) is selected as one of 20 voluntary participants who are then randomly assigned roles of guards and prisoners. They will receive 4000 Marks on completion of the experiment, the prime motivation for most for taking part. The lead character is chosen as a prisoner, but he is also using a hidden camera with the plan of writing a story to rekindle his journalism career. Things start off harmless enough, however, after only a short time the level of violence begins to escalate, as both prisoners and guards adapt to their roles much faster than expected.

In the Stanford Experiment the guards soon began to enforce authoritarian measures and eventually some of the prisoners were subjected to psychological torture and humiliation. After two prisoners had been forced to leave and with many of the prisoner’s human rights being violated, the experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.

The researchers had set out to test the hypothesis that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the main cause of abusive behaviour in prisons. However, after the shocking results of the short-lived experiment, it appeared that the situation itself, rather than the individual personalities of the participants, was to blame for their actions.

This growing sense of tension and unease is handled expertly throughout the film, with the actions of the guards slowly  becoming more and more unacceptable. The setting and focus on one of the prisoners as the lead character adds to the impression that the viewer is one of the prisoners inside the cells. Anything could happen at any moment and this feeling of dread is transferred from the prisoners into the mind of the viewer. As the guards strive to fully adopt their roles the darker side of human nature reveals itself increasingly throughout the film. In the face of a difficult prisoner , Tarek, their actions rapidly escalate to the point where genuine sadistic tendencies are displayed, as well as increasing violence towards the other prisoners.

The fact that this film is based on a real life experiment conducted with human subjects means that this film becomes truly chilling upon reflection. To think that ordinary volunteers with no history of psychological instability could so rapidly turn to violence in order to adapt to a given situation is truly terrifying. The original experiment, and this film, ultimately demonstrate that within many humans there is almost certainly a dark and sadistic side which may manifests itself given the right situation.

Das Experiment is therefore a fascinating film which is built around strong performances and suspenseful directing, giving a true realism to the action. The fact that the film is in German also gives it more of a cult status and if anything adds to the terror, which is somewhat lacking in the American remake The Experiment (2010). Both films, but especially Das experiment are definitely worth a watch for any thriller fans who are looking for something a little bit different.


Cult Film: The Elephant Man (1980)

elephant man screenshot

My Rating: 8/10        IMDb: 8.3        Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

David Lynch’s provocative and often moving account of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, provides us with a much needed triumph for humanity in our increasingly shallow contemporary society.

The Blue Velvet (1986) director chose a stylised grainy black-and-white colouring to shoot the film in which helps to place the film in its historical context of the late 1800s. This combined with the realistic settings and costumes makes the film feel much more authentic. The ground-breaking make-up and prosthetics applied to John Hurt, who plays Merrick, are also noteworthy for adding to the realism, especially given the strong performance given by the actor.

The film, based on a true story, tells the tragic story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), an English man with severe deformities, who was exhibited as a freak and curiosity named the Elephant Man. He went on to become well known throughout London after living in the London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins). Here-in lies the crux of the film which centers on the kindness and generosity of Treves who sees past Merrick’s deformities to the human being beneath. The contrast between the shallow members of society and the surgeon is expertly highlighted by Lynch, as although people seem to be visiting Merrick for his warm and gentle personality, it soon becomes clear that members of high society merely want to see his deformities in the flesh. Consequently, the true shallowness of society is underlined, while the distressing plight of Merrick is emotionally demonstrated through the course of the film. We begin to genuinely care for him and start to hope that we would do the same as Treves in looking beyond his condition to help Merrick live a more fulfilling life. However, I fear the kindness displayed by Treves is becoming an all-too-rare occurrence in today’s appearance-driven society, which too easily thrives on Schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others). The cornered cries of Merrick towards the conclusion of the film therefore become a highly poignant and a fitting way to summarise  this, and the overarching themes of the film:

“I am not an animal!

I am a human being!

I…am…a man!”

The fact that this film is in fact based on the true story Joseph Merrick’s life, who did suffer in these ways, gives the story told by Lynch a chilling reality which means that the emotions evoked during the film remain with the viewer long after the credits have rolled by.

Cult Film: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy screenshot

#84 on IMDb Top 250. Rating: 8.4      Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

This Korean crime thriller stands among the greatest psychological films ever made, but don’t be put off by the subtitles.

The story follows Oh Dae-Su, a seemingly harmless office worker, who disappears suddenly and is imprisoned for 15 years. He is abruptly released without warning and is then challenged to find the true identity of his captor within 5 days. The result is a fascinating battle of wits, as well as physicality, between captor and prisoner as time rapidly runs out for Oh Dae-Su. Action scenes, such as the memorable corridor fight sequence, which is filmed from a side-on perspective,  are a highlight which fix the viewers’ attention and bring a sense of brilliant originality to the film. In this way, the film is engagingly shot, drawing the viewer into Oh Dae-Su’s personal battle for revenge, meaning that we actually care about the plight of the characters; we too wish for vengeance to come to those who are deserving of it.

This film forms the second installment of Director Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), following the theme of revenge.  All three films are highly recommended, but Oldboy especially is essential viewing  for any fan of psychological thrillers due to it’s inventive and unique nature. Nothing I have seen before comes close in terms of engaging and shocking the viewer; deceiving and tricking the mind with the use of flashbacks and alternative character perspectives. The wonderfully shot and choreographed action sequences are also worth watching for alone, as Oh Dae-Su battles to identify his captor.