Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Retro Review: HUMAN EXPERIMENTS (1979)

(US - 1979)

Directed by Gregory Goodell. Written by Richard Rothstein. Cast: Linda Haynes, Geoffrey Lewis, Ellen Travolta, Aldo Ray, Mercedes Shirley, Darlene Craviotto, Lurene Tuttle, Jackie Coogan, Marie O'Henry, Wesley Marie Tackitt, Caroline Davies, Cherie Franklin, Bobby Porter, James O'Connell, Teda Bracci. (R, 85 mins)

There's a welcome drive-in grunginess to HUMAN EXPERIMENTS, a forgotten women-in-prison/psychological thriller mash-up that's just been rescued from obscurity thanks to a new Blu-ray release from Scorpion. It's not surprising that it looks and feels a lot like a TV-movie, as director Gregory Goodell went on to spend the rest of his career largely on teleplay duty for movie-of-the-week offerings like the 1986 Martin Sheen alcoholism drama SHATTERED SPIRITS for ABC and the 1992 Patty Duke supernatural thriller GRAVE SECRETS: THE LEGACY OF HILLTOP DRIVE for CBS, among numerous others. An early screenwriting credit for Richard Rothstein, who went on to create the HBO anthology series THE HITCHHIKER and co-write 1992's franchise-spawning UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, HUMAN EXPERIMENTS is Goodell's only feature film to date and he took the opportunity to revel in some hard-R sleaze with some skin and some gutter talk (including 1950s Hollywood vet Aldo Ray dropping a C-bomb), and a really grim downer of a scene where the heroine masturbates after moistening her fingers with her own tears. Despite the potential, it isn't nearly as over-the-top as a lot of films with a similar setting behind bars, but it still somehow ended up on the UK's infamous Video Nasties list (to lump the comparatively tame HUMAN EXPERIMENTS in with the likes of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and FACES OF DEATH shows how absurd the whole situation was). While its fusion of genres never quite gels and the villain's master gaslighting plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense, the whole project is offbeat enough, and demonstrates a well-deployed since of bitter irony in its denouement that it ends up an interesting curio even if it's not entirely successful.

HUMAN EXPERIMENTS is carried almost entirely by a go-for-broke performance by cult actress Linda Haynes as Rachel Foster, a small-time country music singer from Florida who's driving cross-country on the back roads, picking up gigs in dive bars in podunk towns along the way. At one stop in a California desert town, she's cheated out of a good chunk of her promised $50 by creep bar owner Matt Tibbs (Ray) and doesn't get any help from the asshole sheriff (Jackie Coogan!), who happens to be Tibbs' big brother. On her way out of town, she wrecks her car swerving to avoid hitting a bloodied, shell-shocked young woman in the middle of the road, and when she finds the nearest house to call the police, she walks into an in-progress massacre with an entire family being shotgunned to death by their teenage son. Rachel kills the son in self defense, but when Sheriff Tibbs arrives, he sees her holding a gun and decides to close the case immediately, with circumstantial evidence apparently all that's required to get her a life sentence for murder. She doesn't adjust well to life inside the oddly small facility, where the warden (Mercedes Shirley) is allowing prison psychiatrist Dr. Hans Kline (Geoffrey Lewis) to conduct secret brainwashing experiments on unwilling inmates in a perversion of rehabilitation where their minds snap and they come to believe they're someone completely different, a method that leads not so much to rehabilitation but "rebirth." Rachel soon begins questioning her sanity after she sees new friend Pam (Caroline Davies) hanging in a cell only to have the body disappear and be told she was paroled. There's other subtle examples of Kline playing mind games with her, like buying the car that was owned by the family she was convicted of killing and driving it past her on the prison grounds, and purchasing a painting found at Tibbs' scuzzy motel and hanging it in the prison rec room.

Kline's ultimate motive is still a little foggy even after it's explained, but he's the clear villain in that he's not above killing a test subject if he doesn't get the desired results. To that end, HUMAN EXPERIMENTS is somewhat of a precursor to the much trashier 1985 WIP potboiler HELLHOLE. It doesn't have the merciless scenery chewing of a heroin-addicted Ray Sharkey, but it does have a committed performance by Haynes in what was her only top-billed headlining gig. She's an absolute trooper in this, especially in one horrific scene where she's locked in solitary and cockroaches, spiders, and other insects are poured directly on her through a grate in the ceiling in an attempt to get her to break and let go of "Rachel" and become what Kline wants her to be. Born in 1947, Haynes had a short run in Hollywood in the 1970s, with a handful of feature films and several TV credits. Her most notable roles were as the love interests to dour and paranoid mob flunky Jason Miller in 1975's underrated THE NICKEL RIDE and to unravelling, vengeance-obsessed Vietnam vet William Devane in 1977's ROLLING THUNDER. Haynes had a quality that was hard to pin down, one that can best be described as "the cute girl next door who hit some rough patches and had a habit for falling for the wrong men but wants to get her shit together and settle down." This made her a very natural and unaffected presence in most of her films but Hollywood simply didn't know what to do with her. According to Goodell on the Blu-ray commentary, even the producers of an exploitation grinder like HUMAN EXPERIMENTS tried to talk him out of casting Haynes because she "wasn't glamorous enough." That's precisely why she's perfect for the role of a loner musician with no family or friends disappearing down the back roads of America, barely scraping by with pick-up gigs in shitty dive bars. You don't need to know what it is to know that she's running away from something, which, for better or worse, makes HUMAN EXPERIMENTS the perfect starring vehicle for Linda Haynes. The film was in and out of American drive-ins and grindhouses in a week, but it--or more specifically, Haynes--found some acclaim in Europe, where Haynes won the Best Actress award at the 1981 Sitges Film Festival in Spain, which focuses on the fantasy and horror genres. HUMAN EXPERIMENTS ended up being her penultimate big-screen project, as she would abruptly retire from acting in 1980 at just 33 after supporting roles in the Robert Redford prison drama BRUBAKER and the Emmy-winning miniseries GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES.

A publicity shot of Linda Haynes
from the mid-1970s
She vanished without a trace until journalist and Haynes superfan Tom Graves began searching for her in the mid-1990s. He chronicled his quest in the piece "Blonde Shadow: The Brief Career and Mysterious Disappearance of Linda Haynes." She had no agent, no ties to the industry, left no personal or forwarding info with SAG and seemed to be off the grid by choice. After some time, Graves managed to get her phone number from an assistant of Quentin Tarantino's. Also a Haynes fan, Tarantino named his short-lived Miramax-owned cult distribution label Rolling Thunder Pictures after ROLLING THUNDER, and unsuccessfully attempted to lure Haynes out of retirement to play Sherry Stringfield's mother in a 1995 episode of ER that he was directing. Haynes turned him down--having been out of the industry for a decade and a half and with little interest in movies, she had no idea who Tarantino was and was completely unaware of the cultural impact of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. But the elusive actress consented to an interview with Graves, telling him that in the 15 years since her self-imposed exile, he and Tarantino were the only two who ever tracked her down to discuss her acting career. In Graves' interviews, Haynes revealed that she was developing a serious drinking problem around the time of HUMAN EXPERIMENTS and it was really becoming an issue while shooting GUYANA TRAGEDY. Her marriage was falling apart, she was growing increasingly depressed and having suicidal thoughts, and she decided she needed to get away and clear her head. After a stint in rehab and a divorce, she found that she lost interest in Hollywood and was afraid going back would perpetuate the cycle of alcoholism and depression once again. So she walked away. She moved to an isolated area of Vermont and, eventually to Miami, where most of her family resided. She went to college, got a degree, and began a new career as a legal aid. With the advent of the DVD revolution, Blu-ray bonus features, fan conventions, and social media, the now-70-year-old Haynes has found that her acting career, just a decade in duration, has not been forgotten. She remains one of the best actresses of her era who never quite made it (she's just perfect in ROLLING THUNDER), and even a scuzzy B-movie like HUMAN EXPERIMENTS, made at a time when her personal life was beginning a downward spiral, gives you a good look at what made Linda Haynes such a unique figure in '70s cinema.

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