House of Wax (2005)

What could be more fun than driving to the biggest college football game of the year in your spiffy Dodge Charger, your group of friends piled in the back, geared up for some sophomoric gallivanting? Stopping on the roadside for a camp-night of teenage debauchery, of course! However, when your sweet ride blows a fan belt you have to run to the nearest town to find a replacement. 

In House of Wax (Silver, Zemeckis, & Levin, 2005 -- yes, the one with Paris Hilton, we promise it's still worth watching!), two teens catch a lift with the local road kill collector to Ambrose, a small dusty, out-of-the-way place, searching for the fan belt that stands between them and the ‘big game’. Our protagonists peruse the seemingly deserted town looking for a local mechanic; they find instead a self-proclaimed famous “Wax Museum”. Curious figures stare back at the confused teens as they explore the unknown artful treasures. It is not long before they find out they have entered a staged town-of-wax, created and maintained by a deranged set of brothers as a shrine to their dead parents. The teens find themselves perpetually fooled by the very realistic yet mechanically-driven movements of cleverly placed decoys lining the streets and peering out of living room windows. 

Interestingly, the detection of living things (i.e. animacy detection) is a very hot topic in research laboratories world-wide. People are remarkably adept at perceiving human movement, even when there is no real human form present (huh?! see what we mean HERE). Human attention is highly sensitive to the motion of living things—or things that appear alive (e.g., very life-like wax figures moving in a humanistic way, and even simple geometric shapes moving in certain patterns; see Morito et al., 2009). Under day-to-day circumstances, this mechanism for detecting living things affords us an evolutionary advantage, making us sensitive to potential threats lurking in the shadows. This skill ensures we are better equipped to identify a deranged maniac, stalking us with the intention of coating our bodies in hot wax. However, this sensitivity can also misfire, and we can be easily duped by even moderately lifelike imitations, as the teens in House of Wax are horrified to discover.

Check out House of Wax (2005) here:

Silver, J., Zemecksi, R., & Levin, S. (Producers), Collet-Serra, J. (Director). (2005). House of Wax [Motion picture]. United States & Australia: WanerBros. Pictures & Village Roadshow Pictures.
Morito, Y., Tanabe, H.C., Kochiyama, Y., & Sadato, N. (2009). Neural representation of animacy in the early visual areas: A functional MRI study. Brain Research Bulletin, 79, 271-280.


Red Mist (aka Freakdog) (2008)

Apparently, Red Mist (Breathnach, 2008) had little screen time following its release and, though it is a noble horror film, the fact that it didn't have the opportunity to spread its scientific message is probably a good thing. Putting a twist on revenge killing, Red Mist traces the fleeting footsteps of a cast-out loner, rendered comatose by a group of moody medical students not wanting to get caught for stealing hospital party drugs. By possessing and using the bodies of hospital staff during 'out-of-body' experiences, he exacts an elaborate revenge on the gothic group of geniuses responsible for his tragic situation, all from the comfort and safety of his hospital bed. Some of his methods are clever (acid beer-funnel!), some are just brutal (ever get your head stuck in a car door?), but all of them are purposefully directed and hatefully motivated.

Delightfully, Red Mist tries very hard to ground its fantastical story in real brain science. Indeed, the killer's angular gyrus (a region in the parietal lobe) is almost the star of this film. And this region did receive a bit of celebrity attention a few years ago in the scientific community, when a patient undergoing neurosurgery had her angular gyrus electrically stimulated. Surprisingly, the patient reported a number of phenomena including sensations of “sinking into the bed”, and seeing herself “lying in the bed, from above” (Blake, Ortigue, Landis, & Seek, 2002). According to the authors of the study, the angular gyrus likely plays a role in integrating information about body parts and their relations in space; when this region is disturbed, or electrically stimulated, hallucinations of being ‘out of body’ may occur. The overdosed coma patient in Red Mist shows electrical activity in this region and, of course, the poor doctors do not realize that this really means he can possess other peoples’ bodies to seek retribution. Though patients reporting out-of-body experiences rarely claim to experience possessing others, Red Mist makes a charming imaginative leap -- but one that we would not like to see reach the popular consciousness. 

Check out Red Mist (2008) here:

Blake, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., & Seeck, M. (2002). Simulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature, 419, 19, 269-270. 
Breathnach, P. (Producer), Bosanquet, S. (Director). (2008). Red Mist [Motion picture]. Northern Ireland: Starz Entertainment.