THE KILLING ROOM (2009) ***1/2 is a riviting, frightening indie thriller! by DARK SIDE

Posted on August 6th, 2009
Posted on August 6th, 2009


Is it August already?  I went into hibernation for awhile since the horror scene has been kinda slow (and with Coop cavorting in California with stuntwomenand whatnot), but now I’m all rested up for my busiest season.  With Halloween right around the corner, you’re about to get a case of Dark Side overload.  You’ve been warned.

I’m starting the season off with a hum-dinger of a movie…  The Killing Room

Meant for high-brow audiences, it’s obvious the filmmakers intended this film to score at least a limited theatrical release.  With an impressive cast, a high concept story and a horrifyingly suspenseful plot, The Killing Room has the formula for cult classic status. It premiered at Sundance this year resulting in a moderate amount of buzz.

An NSA psychologist (Chloë Sevigny) arrives at an unnamed facility to interview for a career-advancing position.  She’s immediately put at unease by the creepy boss of the facility Peter Stomare who informs her that he will be observing her while she sits in an ominous control room and watches footage of a psychology experiment.  Her control room overlooks an empty white holding cell, identical to the one she views in the footage.  In the footage, four strangers (Timothy Hutton, Clea Duvall, Nick Cannon and Shea Wigham) enter the room and fill out strange questionnaires.  Soon, Stomare enters and informs the volunteers of the rules of experiment, divided into four phases.  He tells them that phase one began the second he walked into the room. 

Suddenly, something so shocking happens, the volunteers quickly realize that merely surviving the experiment is their primary goal.  Sevigny’s character likewise realizes that she is under intense scrutiny as well and failing to pass the interview process will result in her own immediate termination.  The audience watches the events unfold like Sevigny’s observer character as Stomare plays cat and mouse with her to determine if she’s “ready” for the position. 

The film begins like a prequel to the Canadian horror/sci-fi cult film Cube.  People locked in facility like rats in a maze, forced to a battle of wits as the weaker ones die one by one.  Since Cube – and early Twilight Zone and Outer Limits episodes – such indie genre films have been quite popular (Saw anyone?).  However, The Killing Room boasts a smart, cerebral script paired with a politically paranoid plot and some decent acting. 

Putting the observer of the experiment in as much jeopardy as the subjects was a stroke of inspiration.  Cube Zeroused a similar device that yielded poor results, but here it’s the most fascinating part of the film.  Through the control room, the mystery unfolds for the audience exactly as it unfolds for Sevigny.  Only her character’s professional training and insight clue her in a minute or two before the viewer, but the reveals come steady.  They also reveal some surprisingly horrific secrets that would give a conspiracy theory nut enough fodder to write a series of knuckle-headed manifestos. 

The plot revolves around the MK-ULTRA U.S. Government mind control experiments that was outlawed in the 1960’s due to  unethical practices.  It’s files were destroyed in 1973 to ensure it’s overall secrecy, but the film suggests that the project was resurrected after the events of 9/11, or that it possibly never ended.  It becomes evident early on that the experiment is used to identify a particular subject for a specific quality, but that subject/quality is saved for one of the final twists of the 3rd act. 

The atmosphere is impeccable, complete with over saturated, bright experiment cells and dark, moody control rooms.  Expressionless technicians in white mill about, un-phased by the atrocities they facilitate and the horrors that occur in front of them.  Footage of the subjects show display overlaying numbers/measurements/statistics while technicians spout off  commands, codes and technical jargon as if they are operating an airport control tower. 

Sevigny walks the precarious line as an obviously cold and calculated professional who tries desperately not to show a hint of weakness in front of the ever-watching eye of the evil Stomare.  She spends most of the second and third act quietly trying to decide if she should play along or find a way to free the doomed subjects and make a run for it.  Her subdued performance gave me a renewed respect for her (especially after her gross miscalculation in Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny by agreeing to perform a real life you-know-what on you-know-who on camera). 

Stomare steals the film in his most evil and intimidating role (knowing him, that’s saying a lot) since his turn as Lucifer in Constantine.  His cold and clinical justification for the murder of American citizens for the greater good is as chilling as they come. 

Most of the “subjects” cast gets precious little time to be effectively dramatic as the ticking clock and the hasty process of elimination allows for too many moments of obligatory freaking-out and confusion that impede the movement of the story.  I’m especially disappointed that my two favorite actors (trying not to reveal spoilers here) were the first to go in lieu of much less talented ones.  My favorite performance amongst the victims comes from (highlight the blank to view the spoileriffic inviso-text)…  Shea Wigham, a fantastic actor in recent genre films like Splinter and Wristcutters: A Love Story, dies far too early in the story and without much emotional impact.  I guess actor wannabe Nick Cannon gets top billing over him.  It’s annoying while searching for pictures for this film that I mostly find images of Cannon mugging like a hip-hop jerk in his P. Diddy suit and gold chains. Lame.

If you like your thrillers paranoid and thought boxed-in pseudo sci-fi/horror suspense movies like the Cube trilogy, 1984 (and even the sorta-clever Saw series) were the bees knees, you’ve gotta check this one out.  It’s a fun ride that has a great ending that not only shocks the viewer, but takes a cue from Saw by suggesting multiple potential sequels.  Sure there are cliches present, but there’s enough innovation to make this one a must-see for fans of this sub-genre.

Director Jonathan Liebsman who helmed the impotent Darkness Falls, then made up for it with the underrated Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Beginning (and also The Killing Room) is tapped to direct the big-budgeted, alien invasion sci-fi film Battle: Los Angeles.  Not sure how he’ll fare outside of the indie circle but after two decent genre films in a row, I’m curious to find out.

Good Halloween viewing. Grab it when it releases October 13th. 

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Trailer to sweeten the pot…

**Yawn** Here comes Halloween. Time to make the doughnuts…

-Dark Side

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