Testing . . . Testing . . .

Sometimes watching lots of movies can have its down sides, especially if you watch lots of “psychological thrillers”. That’s kind of a buzzword; any movie with a hint of a twist calls itself that, and very few actually live up to their potential. Some movies certainly do, but there are scads more that fall short, or fall apart, or their so-called surprise endings are easily deduced because they aren’t original. After you’ve watched enough of them, you can usually pick out what the twist will be.

Two psychological thriller films I watched recently take on the same premise: a group of people who have volunteered for a test that they know nothing about, and the breakdown of the group as tensions rise.

[one_third][/one_third] In Exam¸ eight final candidates for a high-powered, high status job are passing the final stage of their rigorous interview process. Set in present time but a slightly alternate universe, they are given enigmatic instructions and these self-described “A-type personalities” must try and discover what the test actually is and if they’re supposed to work together or with a more cutthroat mindset.

As valid psychological experiments have shown, as stress increases, different traits start coming out. One candidate is domineering and antagonistic, others strive for group efforts, and still another seemingly shuts down under the pressure. Candidates are eliminated by guile and deceit. Their imposed time limit winds down, making the remaining people paranoid and resorting to last ditch efforts, including physical torture and murder. In the end, only one candidate remains, and it’s not quite what you might have thought it may be. The actual test itself is a bit of a surprise too, needing neither cooperation nor the competitive edge.

For a thriller, Exam has the rare, pretty positive ending. I know that sounds like a stretch, what with the paranoid torture and all, but trust me: The implications made at the end are solid and optimistic. Overall the movie was good, although the reveal doesn’t turn everyone on their ear.

[one_third][/one_third]The other movie, The Killing Room, was set up in a similar way, although the four strangers believe they’re volunteering for a medical study. Then, when things start going awry (one participant is brutally shot after innocuous chatter by the man running the program), they find themselves locked in a room and told only one will survive.

Once again, anxiety and fear rule. Unlike the other film, The Killing Room also shows some of the behind the scenes action of the group conducting the experiment. The director is interviewing a woman to work in his program, and uses her background in psychiatry to reason through the participants’ reactions, as well as gauge her suitability for his insidious agenda.

In this one, I thought I had it completely figured out. I thought it was plain the real subject of the experiment was the woman being interviewed, and I thought the film wasn’t quite as clever as it was trying to be.

Imagine my delight when yes, although that is the case, it is only superficially true, and an actual twist involving the lone survivor was the surprise, ambiguous ending! I love it when a film can sneak up and blindside me, and this one had me hoodwinked right before the end credits began to roll.

In the psychological film genre, both films did an admirable job with their similar subject matter, and both are enjoyable enough to view more than once.

Exam, directed by Stuart Hazeldine; written by Stuart Hazeldine and Simon Garrity. Released in 2010; available through Netflix streaming. Watch the trailer for Exam.

The Killing Room, directed by Jonathan Liebesman; written by Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock. Released in 2009; available through Netflix streaming. Watch the trailer for The Killing Room.