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February 15th, 2017

HUMAN EXPERIMENTS (1979) ** ½

Linda Haynes stars as a country singer in the midst of a tour. Aldo Ray is a sleazy promoter who swindles her out of her fee and gets away with it because his brother (Jackie Coogan) just so happens to be the sheriff (and Uncle Fester). Unfazed, she continues on with the tour. While on the road, Linda has an accident and goes to a nearby farmhouse for help. There, she stumbles upon the dead bodies of a family. She kills the young boy responsible for the crime in self-defense, but the courts don’t believe her story and sentence her to life in prison. It doesn’t take long for the crazy prison shrink (Geoffrey Lewis) to single Linda out as his next psychological test subject.

Human Experiments is weird hybrid of horror film and Women in Prison movie that’s not always entirely successful, but it does offer intermittent thrills. The Women in Prison aspects don’t really take hold until the second act. That’s okay because it gives us enough time to get to know Haynes and root for her. As far as the Women in Prison clichés go, we get a pretty good delousing scene, a potentially great physical examination that is unfortunately cut short, and Haynes has several run-ins with the bitchy matron. Sadly, there aren’t any shower scenes, but Linda has a few quality nude scenes (including a hot masturbation scene) along the way.

The title is a bit misleading as the main experiment doesn’t happen until the last twenty minutes. Also, don’t expect it to be exploitative and trashy just because most of the action takes place in a women’s penitentiary. The horror here is more psychological than anything, which isn’t exactly a bad thing.

The problem is that none of it quite gels. We get some campy moments here and there (Haynes’ country crooning in a honkytonk is just plain awful) and the horror aspects are mostly limited to Haynes crawling through a narrow hall full of spiders and bugs. Still, there are a handful of effective moments, like when Haynes finds the dead bodies in the farmhouse. When the toast pops out of the toaster, it’s a nice jump scare, but it also tells us that the killer is probably still lurking about. Although it’s a simple little detail, it works. Other sequences feel like they could’ve come out of a Lifetime Movie, which makes sense since that’s pretty much what director Gregory Goddell directed for the rest of his career.

The cast helps to sustain your interest even when the film can’t make up its mind what genre to pursue. Haynes (who looks a little like Nicole Kidman) is excellent in the lead and makes you care about her character. Lewis does some fine work as the doctor who has an obvious screw loose and Ray and Coogan once again excel at playing degenerates. John’s sister, Ellen Travolta also pops up as a convict who shows Haynes the ropes.

AKA: Beyond the Gates. AKA: Women in Prison.

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