The Experiment (2010)

In recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment, we decided to watch the relatively recent film The Experiment (2010), an American remake of the famed Das Experiment (2001). Both films are based loosely on events that transpired during a historic week in the basement of a Stanford University building. In the Prison study, now a classic in the annals of psychology, people were recruited from the surrounding community, and assigned to role-play as ‘guards’ or ‘prisoners’ in a mock jail. The participants were given a set of rules to follow, based on their assigned role, in order to facilitate the atmosphere of the jail. Though the researchers planned on running the study for two weeks, the experiment was terminated after only six days as the participants unexpectedly adopted their roles too thoroughly. The ‘guards’ began to abuse the ‘prisoners’, demeaning and humiliating them, and dehumanizing them viciously. Over the course of just 6 days, ‘prisoners’ lost their sense of will and independence, and became depersonalized and depressed. The original study is famed for its demonstration that, when it comes to overt behavior, regular, law-abiding everyday people are capable of terrible things under the influence of certain situational factors. Though the Stanford Prison experiment is not without criticism, decades of psychological research shows that one thing is clear: ‘good’ people can do ‘bad’ things.

The plot of the film follows the recorded events relatively faithfully, but introduces unexpected themes of ‘survival’, ‘evolution’, and ‘instinct’ (what do these clips of eels fighting and dead puppies have to do with anything?) The most unfortunate thing about The Experiment (2010), however, is that it overlooks the critical conclusion of the Stanford Prison experiment, and one that we, in assessing the behaviour of others, frequently lose sight of— often, a person’s behaviour is more attributable to the demands of a situation than personal dispositions. Indeed, even well-adjusted, psychologically stable individuals are capable of shocking behavior under certain social pressures. The film however, prefers to attribute the malice and abuse to a few ‘crazy’ individuals in need of psychological help, bent on fulfilling sadistic desires that they harbour within dark places inside their twisted minds. A recurring theme in the film is the notion that humans are exceptional, and differ from other animals when it comes to violence: “Still think we’re higher on the evolutionary chain than monkeys?” asks an ex-con to prisoner 77 (played by Adrien Brody). “Yea, because we can still do something about it”, he replies, and looks off with an air of nobility.  Though we do not wish to open this bag of philosophical worms here, we do want to point out that The Experiment (2010) fails at addressing its inspiration’s true message. To make matters worse, at the end of the film we feel passionate about our moral strengths, as thought they are handed to us from divine sources, rather than feeling more compassionate towards the guards and prisoners who both suffered psychologically because of the despicable situation they found themselves in. 

More on The Experiment (2010) here

More on Das Experiment (2001) here

More on the Stanford Prison Experiment here

Adelstein, M. (Producer), Scheuring, P. (Director). (2010).The Experiment [Motion picture]. United States: Stage 6 films.


From Beyond (1986)

Aaaaaahhhhhh the pineal gland -- considered the seat of the soul by the great French philosopher Descartes, (the one who famously stated  “Cogito ergo sum" --I think, therefore I am). Known for its central location in the brain (almost in the middle, buried deep behind our forehead) and its lack of symmetry (to the naked eye there is only one of them) this cute little structure has long received the attention of philosophers and scientists interested in the mind. For Descartes, this was the window through which the ephemeral, intangible mind could interact with the body, and exert control or influence over the material world. This concept served a central purpose in Descartes’ Dualist (i.e., duality between mind and body) theories about consciousness. After all, without a portal to the physical world, how could the mind instruct the body to do all of the things it does? Alas, however, modern neurophysiology has humbled this tiny structure, discovering instead it is responsible for regulating hormones important for a host of behaviours, including the sleep-wake cycle and sexual development. Hormonal regulation and not a mind-material portal? Ho-hum.

The relationship between the pineal gland and sexual development is exploited in the hysterical plot of From Beyond (1986), in which Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) discovers, via magnetic stimulation, that the pineal gland is literally a “third-eye”, allowing him to peer into a dimension of sexual awakening, Freudian metamorphoses, and florescent lights, apparently! Not that we --ahem-- mind! The film takes us on a multi-dimensional adventure, and though its explorations of sexuality and brain anatomy are questionable, the dialogue makes us squirt milk through our noses, the effects are bedazzling, and we find ourselves groping at our foreheads, wondering what depraved horrors that cute little structure is hiding from us.

More on From Beyond (1986) here:

For more on the pineal gland visit:


Yuzna, B. (Producer), Gordon, S. (Director). (1986). From Beyond [Motion picture]. United States: MGM Home Entertainment.


Expand your goretex

"Why don't you write about movies people have actually SEEN?"

Further to this criticism we have faced, the blog now includes a list of links to websites where we find movie recommendations (BoulevardMovies.com is particularly good for finding obscure movies to purchase on DVD)! Now you can see them all too (including the particularly delightful Italian romp, "Anthropophagus", previewed in the above photo).


They Live (1988)

John Carpenter got something right when he conceived of They Live (1988), and the formula was simple: start with snarky, dark, commentary about class structure in American society, add some criticism of authority, and top it off with the on-screen antics of—who else?—Rowdy Roddy Piper, and you have a tantalizing foray into the public’s conscious—or should we say unconscious? After donning specialty sunglasses that only the outrageously stylish 80’s could have produced, our main character finds himself staring his oppressive adversaries in the face—and discovers that they are controlling the population with subliminal instructions to ‘obey’ and ‘consume’! A startling idea, to be sure

Though the central idea of subliminal mind control is not original, it does allow us to address the very important question of subliminal perception, and to ask the question ‘Just how much can the brain process outside of our awareness?’ Well, it’s clear that the brain can and does process a lot of information that we can’t necessarily consciously report (e.g. words and pictures). For instance, researchers will often present pictures or words for very short durations on a computer screen and measure whether people report seeing them. Interestingly, researchers can predict whether a person is likely to report seeing an image by examining what parts of the brain are active and to what extent (e.g., areas involved in sensory processing, as well as ‘higher-association’ areas that allow us to recognize complex shapes and word meanings are more active during conscious perception; see Dehaene et al, 2006).

However, it is unclear just how effective instructions like ‘obey’ would be at initiating obedience in people. After all, if people are unlikely to obey when told explicitly, why would they be any more likely to do so aren’t consciously aware of the instruction? Though our brain is capable of processing many things in the environment without our direct awareness, we are confident that we need not fear hostile takeover by an alien race that happens to like our brand of Western wealth and elitism. Just be careful about your choice of sunglasses.

Check out They Live here:

Dehaene, S., et al (2006). Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: A testable taxonomy. Trends in Cognitive Science, 10, 5, 204-211.
Franco, LJ (Producer), Carpenter, J. (Director). (1988). They Live [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Studios.


Wasp Woman (1959) and Wasp Woman (1995)

Janice Starlin had it all: money, a boyfriend, fame and recognition. As the founder of a popular cosmetics company she had all the attention and financial freedom she could ever dream of, until one day her sales began to drop. Much to her dismay, her stern and unforgiving stock holders reminded the Janice-of-yesterday that it is no longer ‘yesterday’; she had worn out her usefulness, growing visibly older, wrinkly, and generally unappealing to the public (“what kind of woman wants to buy cosmetics from a senior?” they boldly implied). Thinking herself immune to life’s natural course, Janice had single handedly depreciated the value of Starlin Cosmetics. Fewer and fewer clients remain interested in the products, because Janice was no longer appealing as an object of sexual interest. Oh, the perils of aging!

Fortunately, a desperate Janice gets wind of the fringe science of Dr. Zinthrop, a near-madman looking to perfect an anti-aging serum derived from the jelly of queen wasps. (Wait! Have we confused ourselves here? Those are bees in the opening credits, right?). Despite the doctor’s orders Janice hastily injects herself with the serum, a move that transforms her not only into a thing of beauty, but a thing of bee-uty! (Har har.)

Despite the remarkable similarities between the two movies (after 36 years we have developed our ideas about beauty, consumerism, and entomology!), these films provide campy carnage that is always hilarious and convincing (well, maybe not convincing...)! But we are troubled to find the persistent idea that youthfulness determines beauty. In recent decades, evolutionary psychologists (those that look for relationships between human behaviour today and the environmental and social constraints of our evolutionary ancestors) have begun identifying a host of potential cues that are related to people’s ratings of attractiveness across different cultures (see Fink & Penton-Voak, 2002 for an example). 

Though none of these are without controversy, some of the cues that have received the most attention include facial symmetry, averageness, and hormone markers. Specifically, it appears that people find faces more attractive when they are relatively symmetrical (i.e. there are no startling differences between the left and right side of a face); more surprisingly, people with average facial features (i.e. they do not appear odd with features that deviate largely from most people) are judged as more attractive. Further, and probably the most controversial, is the role of the face in signaling genetic health in males and females. For example, since testosterone levels contribute to the masculinity of a face, and since testosterone can suppress immune function, highly masculine faces signal to potential mates that even with a low-functioning immune system, they can deal with the viral and bacterial threats of the environment (i.e., because they have not died yet)—something very valuable to prospective mothers.

Though the things that people find attractive differ from person to person, and though the actual relationship between ratings of attractiveness and different physical characteristics is turning out to be highly complex, it is by no means necessary to moonlight as a giant man-eating (corset-wearing) insect in the pursuit of beauty!

Check out Wasp Woman (1959) here:

Check out Wasp Woman (1995) here:

Fink, B., & Penton-Voak, I. (2002). Evolutionary psychology of facial attractiveness. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 154-158.
Corman, R. (Producer), Corman, R., & Hill, J. (Directors). (1959). The Wasp Woman [Motion picture]. United States: The Filmgroup Inc
Corman, R., & Elliot, M. (Producers), Wynorski, J., (Director). (1995). The Wasp Woman [Motion picture].