In August 1971, one of the most controversial pieces of psychological research was conducted at Stanford University. In an experiment that was supposed to last two weeks but was terminated after only 6 days, Philip Zimbardo created a mock prison within the walls of the university and placed voluntary young participants within it. Paying them $15 a day, they were randomly assigned one of two roles – prisoner, or guard – and left alone under constant surveillance. What happened was truly shocking.
The participants in the study adapted to their roles far beyond Zimbardo’s initial expectations, with the ‘guards’ strongly enforcing authoritarian measures and subjecting the ‘prisoners’ to psychological torture. While this iconic work has inspired films before – 2001’s German-language Das Experiment and subsequent English remake The Experiment in 2010 are loosely based on the study – The Stanford Prison Experiment is the true story. And boy, is it harrowing.
Out now on DVD & Blu-ray, The Stanford Prison Experiment brings the tumultuous 6-day study to life with impeccable accuracy. Covering the entire experiment in what feels like real-time, the film is uncomfortable to watch throughout. It’s extremely bleak and quiet, with very little music or large set pieces – this is so incredibly portrayed, it feels like we’re watching original footage of the study. Anybody among you who has studied psychology in any form or even just had a casual interest in it, you will immediately recognise the painstakingly recreated setting and costumes. Everything about The Stanford Prison Experiment looks exactly as it does in the photos and videos you may have seen. Amazing.
“But what’s interesting about just watching an old experiment”, I hear you cry. Well, as well as watching the terrifying research unfold, we see what went on behind the scenes with Zimbardo and his team observing the study and wondering whether to step in whenever things got…nasty. And we see that Zimbardo was tortured too, by his own work - by being too obsessed to cancel the study, and allow the mistreatment of the ‘prisoners’ to go ahead in the name of science.
The Stanford Prison Experiment’s cast are truly a marvel. Led by Billy Crudup’s charismatic performance as Dr. Zimbardo, this ensemble cast includes many well-known indie faces like Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann and Johnny Simmons. Everyone is incredibly believable and just downright phenomenal in their roles, but one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Michael Angarano deserves to be showered with awards for this performance. As Christopher Archer, he completely sums up the experiment – and how scary it truly was. Known as ‘the John Wayne guard’, Archer (in real-life, his name was Dave Eshelman) became completely drunk with power and was arguably the reason the experiment collapsed – although he has since claimed he was conducting an experiment of his own. Whether that is true or he is infact a sociopath, we will never know. But Angarano’s performance is one of the most intense and terrifying performances you will ever see.
Outside of the cast, The Stanford Prison Experiment excels in all other areas. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s direction is stunning, again making the film feel real and believable to the point that you’ll think you’re watching a documentary. Tim Talbott’s screenplay, taking a lot verbatim from the experiment, is chilling – especially in its portrayal of authority and abuse upon the prisoners. The claustrophobic cinematography from Jas Shelton puts you right in the ‘Stanford Country Prison’, which leaves us feeling exhausted and abused ourselves.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a difficult film to review. Due to its accuracy and believability, it’s hard to review the film without reviewing the study itself and getting into a discussion about Zimbardo and his work. I’ll leave you to make your own decisions where that is concerned, but in terms of the film? This is just a perfect piece of cinema. Flawless throughout – incredibly acted, phenomenally directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, and amazingly written by Tim Talbott. This is one of those rare films that I cannot find one flaw with. It’s an extremely difficult watch at times, but easily one of the best films of the year. By the end, you will be tired, shocked, upset and disturbed.
There are no flesh-eating monsters here. No axe-wielding murderers, no paranormal entities and no zombies. But you know what? The Stanford Prison Experiment might just be one of the finest horror films ever made.
Truly stunning, but intensely harrowing. 5/5.
The Stanford Prison Experiment at CeX
Get your daily CeX at