Even when appropriately lowering one's standards in accordance with a direct-to-video horror movie, Psychic Experiment is a jaw-dropping disaster. In the movie's (oh-so-minor) favor, there's no shortage of insane ideas crammed into the script, but there's also no shortage of poor direction, worse writing, and painfully stiff acting to completely ruin the experience. Even the most desperate fans of actress Adrienne King (the biggest draw here), who have been waiting to see her in a movie since Friday the 13th Part 2 29 -- 29! -- years ago would be better off continuing to wait instead of subjecting themselves to this kind of indignity.
Writer/director Mel House has clearly seen a few thrillers, and he's fully aware that the filmmaker shouldn't need to spell everything out for the audience. Instead, he takes the opposite tactic: so much of what happens in Psychic Experiment is vaguely defined to the point of confusion. True story: I actually had to resort to reading the summary on the DVD box almost halfway through the movie because it's just not clear who the vast majority of the characters are, or what they're doing. There's a group of activists (I guess). There's a brother-and-sister news camera couple. There are some FBI agents and/or cops (some of them, it's hard to tell). There are quite a few townspeople. I have no idea what their relation to one another really is beyond living in the same town, because House fails to make it clear.
One of the only characters that does stand out, enough to be named the protagonist, is a scientist or doctor named Cole Gray (Denton Blane Everett), sent into a small town to work on some sort of project. He doesn't know what it is, the audience doesn't know what it is. Nobody knows what it is. Well, okay, the marketing department at Lionsgate apparently knows what it is: a group of people led by Louise Strack (King) have implanted chips in the heads of the whole town that cause their worst fears and neuroses to come alive and attack them. There may be an idea for a horror film in there, but a bit of vague revenge motivation and generalized mad-scheming don't really explain why it makes any sense to torture the town, or what the experiment proves, or what Strack will gain, or why anyone would care long enough to watch this movie.
If the viewer desperately clings to the idea that "neuroses materialize" like a life raft, they may be able to understand most of approximately one out of every three scenes. I understand why a rack of dolls come to life and (very) violently attack the customers in a store, because recently-released pedophile Joseph Webber (Phantasm's Reggie Bannister) is still conflicted on the inside, and being in the toy aisle is bringing up some uncomfortable urges. On the other hand, I don't understand why a minor character returns home to find the body of his son still playing video games (face removed, the inside of his skull visible), or why a burnt naked woman then appears in a pile of computer-generated CG goo in his kitchen and pulls him into some abyss. (This happens to several people.) I don't understand what the FBI's plan is in the town, or why they're working separately, or who was an undercover agent, or why all of them are extremely melodramatic. I don't understand the tiers of psychic manipulation that are sort of explained during the third act. I also really don't understand Cole's relationship to several people in the town, including some sort of cop-stakeout thing, an old flame (?), and why House was compelled to include the twist that Cole was apparently molested by Webber as a child.
The only reason any of this might sucker a few rentals out of people are the horror-movie names: King, Bannister, Debbie Rochon, even recognizable character actor Glenn Morshower and Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Kathy Lamkin. King and Bannister at least manage to come off as professionals weathering a shitstorm, but none of them can escape the awful script and terrible direction. The DVD box art also really pushes poor Katie Featherston of the Paranormal Activity movies, who appears in the movie for roughly six minutes, none of which are exciting or notable in any way. She plays Cole's girlfriend in film's opening and closing. They chat for a bit, she waves him goodbye, and she's gone until the film returns to her for a minute at the end. Her role is so minor it doesn't even get a chance to qualify as good or bad; she's given so little screen time and such irrelevant material, she might as well be an extra.
Psychic Experiment is a true exhibit of incompentence, from frame one of the film all the way to the end. It'd be an embarrassing "first try" for any feature director, but House turns out to have not one, not two, but three previous features under his belt, placing the film on yet another impressive (or disturbing) level of ineptitude. At least the change from Walking Distance to Psychic Experiment is accurate: the final product made me feel like a lab rat being subjected to some cruel torture, and it made my head hurt like hell.
As mentioned above, the art really plays up Featherston's non-role in this movie. Don't be fooled. The disc comes in a standard ECO-case with no insert.
The Video and Audio
Pyschic Experiment wears all the limitations of its production on its sleeve in this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Some shots have a standard "consumer digital camera" look to them, while many of the others have a soft-focus filter on them that adds an artificially glossy but theoretically less amateur appearance. Either way, the image is noisy, lacking in fine detail, and washed out (the last two issues being a direct side effect of the filter applied to the picture. A few additional shots also look kind of unusual, but their appearance may be a result of a bright scene being (poorly) darkened in post-production. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is pretty sparse: the sound effects have that low-budget feel to them, and the music is sort of intermittent. There are no audible issues, but it's just not a particularly impressive aural experience thanks to the budget and other limitations of the production. Surround activity is infrequent, going from full-blast to non-existent depending on the scene. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Audio commentary by Mel House and actors Shannon Lark, Denton Blaine Everett, Debbie Rochon, Reggie Bannister, and Melanie Donihoo: After a short introduction by House where he explains the track was recorded at a film festival, we dive into the track, already a minute or so in progress. It's more of a friendly gathering than an in-depth discussion of the film and its merits. It's actually more pleasant than the film itself, since the actors look and sound like they're having fun.
"Burned Guys and Dolls: The Making of Psychic Experiment" (16:50): Watching everyone talk up the film as some sort of great project in this making-of featurette is hard to swallow: it's awkward when House refers to the sexually abused character of Cole as "basically me," or when Bannister praises House's ability to keep track of his shots (something not evident in the final product), or King explaining that Psychic Experiment was the film "worth coming back for." Everett comes off the worst, though, recounting how he called House to tell him the script was "fucking intelligent," taking pride in his process as a Method actor in some Z-grade horror movie, or, worst of all, referring to the sexual abuse thread as "fucked up," then making a stupid joke about it less than a minute later. The only folks in the featurette who come out looking good are the talented makeup artists who worked on the film, whose efforts are mostly covered up by awful CG, house's direction, and Philip Roy's terrible cinematography.
Deleted and alternate scenes (17:08) are no more or less confusing than the feature film itself; that they appear to be presented entirely out of order really doesn't help. The most insufferable of them concerns a potential romance between Cole and FBI agent Lisa Stanton (Melanie Donihoo) that might've actually made the finished film even harder to watch had the material been left in. Glad I still get a chance to see it. Commentary by House and Donihoo is also provided (I admit it: I skipped it).
Trailers for Camp Hell, The Hunters, Needle, and promos for FEARnet and Epix play before the main menu. An original trailer for Psychic Experiment is also included.
It's a shame, since I like many of the actors involved with the film, and they seem to like the film (based on the commentary), but there's nothing at all redeeming about this mess. Skip it at all costs.
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