A closer look at what might be Val Kilmer's weirdest film

Feature Ryan Lambie 2 Jul 2013 - 06:41

Quietly released in 2009, suspense thriller The Steam Experiment may be Val Kilmer's strangest film yet. Ryan takes a closer look...

In a career spanning 36 years, Val Kilmer's played Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday, Simon Templar and Batman. He was Iceman in Top Gun. He was Moses in The Prince Of Egypt, Elvis in True Romance, and the voice of KITT in the 2008 Knightrider TV movie.

Val Kilmer's well known for these roles and many, many more - but one that somehow flew under our radar until now was that of mad global warming doomsday theorist James Pettis in the 2009 film, The Steam Experiment.

We stumbled on the film entirely by accident one idle Sunday evening. While scrolling through the movies on Lovefilm Instant, we spotted this anonymous-sounding movie title, and were immediately taken by the following synopsis:

"Suspense thriller starring Val Kilmer as a deranged scientist who employs extreme measures in his misguided attempt to raise awareness of global warming. Former science professor Jimmy Pettis (Kilmer) devises a brutal experiment in which he locks six people in a Turkish bath."

With a description like that, how could anyone resist?

"The eyes cauterise"

The Steam Experiment - also known as The Chaos Experiment - screened in two theatres in the Michigan town in which it was shot, but according to a news story from 2009, only sold about 230 tickets. It's fair to say, then, that the movie disappeared into obscurity fairly quickly, in spite of its perfectly decent cast; as well as Val Kilmer, The Steam Experiment stars Eric Roberts, Starship Troopers' Patrick Muldoon and hard-working character actor Armande Assante (Judge Dredd, American Gangster). It was directed by French filmmaker Philippe Martinez, who was also responsible for the 2004 Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, Wake Of Death.

The Steam Experiment plays out a little bit like the original Saw film, in that it's a thriller with horror overtones. Kilmer's James Pettis shows up at the offices of a Michigan newspaper, demanding that his chosen headline about the imminent destruction of Earth be published, or else the six people he has cooped up in a bath house elsewhere in the city will die a terrible death.

Detective Mancini (Assante) is called in to find the six prisoners before it's too late. And right away, Mancini finds himself in a terse battle of wits with the twitching, perspiring Pettis.

"Ever sit in a 130 degree heat, detective?," Pettis teases. "Know what happens to the body in about two hours? The lungs melt. The eyes cauterise..."

Somehow, Pettis has conflated scientific research into global warming with the Mayan calendar doomsday theories that were buzzing around the internet until December 2012 - at which point, the world stubbornly refused to blow up, and the panic ended. But The Steam Experiment was shot before 2012, and Pettis is convinced that the end is nigh.

"According to the Mayan calendar, the world is going to end in 2012, and not because of spiritual enlightenment," Pettis rants. "Hundreds of millions of people are going to die, and that's a fact. Global warming. 130 degrees in the middle of December. In three years, the mid-west will be under water - swallowed by the great lakes. Ears of corn will be sold by the highest bidder. Chaos. Anarchy. The de-evolution of society as we know it... It's going to make New Orleans look like a candy store. "

It's an odd performance from Kilmer. His mannerisms are a cross between his old turn as Jim Morrison and Heath Ledger's Joker: shifty, tense, all darting eyes and pursed lips. Kilmer looks hot and panicked, like a man desperate to get to the chip shop before closing time. He also spends much of the film wearing the same roll-neck sweater, which looks so tight that it could be cutting off the blood supply to his head. Maybe that's why he looks so tense and shifty.

A film of two halves

With the scenario established, the story flicks between two interlocking dramas: Mancini attempting to wheedle information out of Pettis, and the steadily rising temperature in the steam room itself. Here, we meet the six people faced with a decidedly steamy demise: a retired footballer (Eric Roberts), a nurse (Patrick Muldoon), a former actress (Megan Brown), a waitress (Eve Mauro) an Italian restaurant proprietor (Quinn Duffy) and a nervy romance novelist (Cordelia Reynolds).

Duped into entering the steam room by Pettis - who'd told them it was some sort of promotion for a dating website - the victims initially enjoy their stay in the sauna, and exchange life stories as they gently sweat among the mock-Byzantine decor.

"I like Viagra," blurts Eric Roberts' footballer.

"I like chicks who know what they want," offers the restaurateur from New York.

"I like living the life of a neurotic," says the nervy romantic novelist. "Introspective. Sensitive. I'm your typical American romance writer who fancies herself a poet."

"I don't want to ruin everybody's weekend," confides Patrick Muldoon's nurse, "but my wife died in a car accident nine months ago. I didn't think it was a good idea to come. Then I thought, why not?"

Why not, indeed. They're a bad-tempered and potentially certifiable group of characters before the crisis unfolds, so you can probably imagine how quickly things escalate when one of their number notices that the only exit's locked from the outside.

"Which one of you [country gentlemen] was the last to touch that [flipping] door?" the Italian restaurant owner demands, as the true horror of the situation becomes apparent.

By this point in the film, a few problems become clear. One: all the steam room segments are shot through what can only be described as a Lucozade filter. Coupled with an editing tic that sees shots constantly fade in and out, and you're left with a film that frequently looks like this: 

Problem two: the characters don't talk or act like real human beings. Within one minute of their discovery of a blocked exit, the six captors are all swearing at each other. Within another two minutes, one of them's brandishing a length of iron piping. A few seconds after that, someone's dead.

Now, most of us have never been unfortunate enough to be trapped in a sauna with Eric Roberts or Pat out of Starship Troopers, but I'm fairly sure it would take a bit longer for us to completely lose our minds. Sure, we might get a bit anxious, and maybe knock on the door a bit, but we wouldn't start brandishing blunt implements for at least a couple of hours. In fact, we probably wouldn't pick a fight with Eric Roberts at all, which is what Starship Troopers Pat does at one point. Has he never seen Best Of The Best?

"My calculations are quite precise."

While everyone goes nuts and starts breaking tiles in the steam room, Mancini's still trying to coax something useful out of Pettis. It's not actually clear, in fact, whether the sauna events are happening concurrently with Pettis' interrogation, whether they happened in the past, or whether they're merely figments of his imagination.

Mancini tries to get Pettis on side by driving him around in a car for a bit, engaging in polite conversation, making idle threats, and even providing a soothing shoulder rub. None of it works particularly well: irrespective of Mancini's approach, Pettis simply sits and looks calmly into the middle distance like a depressed used car salesman.

Falling as it does into a predictable rhythm between police interrogation and steam room angst, the movie feels somewhat long even at 86 minutes (including credits). Even attempts to spice things up with some moderately oozy horror - that familiar genre mainstay, the nail gun, even makes a brief appearance - can't paper over the noticeable lack of suspense.

What the movie does have in its favour, though, is Kilmer, and lots of him. Both the villain and the nominal lead, he's infinitely more interesting to watch than the ensemble cast sweating away in a posh hotel somewhere. Kilmer may have lost some of the Hollywood golden boy looks of his youth, but what he does bring  to The Steam Experiment is a curious sort of resigned charisma, like a man who's stumbled into a film project by mistake and determined to make the best of it.

Smiling, staring, standing stock still on a slowly revolving merry-go-round: Kilmer doesn't get to move much, which may account for why this surely ranks as one of his strangest performances - and yes, that includes his rather distracted turn in the infamous Island Of Doctor Moreau

In fact, The Steam Experiment is surely the weirdest movie Kilmer's ever been involved in. Near the beginning, Maurice Ravel's Bolero plays - a piece of music which may fool British viewers into thinking that 80s ice skating couple Torvill and Dean might be about to turn up (sadly, they don't). Midway through, Eric Roberts suddenly acquires a Texas drawl, which ebbs away again in the third act. There are crazy facial expressions, like this one: 

And there are shots like this, which made us laugh when we think we were supposed to be gripping our arm rests in fear: 

In fairness, The Steam Experiment does have a few surprises in store in the final stretch, which we won't spoil here. But mostly, it's just weird. Weirdly written, weirdly shot, and weirdly acted. We're not even sure what the merry-go-round had to do with the plot.

The Steam Experiment's not the kind of film Kilmer's likely to proudly add to his filmography, like Tombstone, and it almost certainly won't be remembered by audiences like his turns as Batman or Iceman. But it is strangely compelling and, in an otherwise muddled film so full of shouting, nail guns, heat and chaos, Kilmer's performance is the calm, ice-cool centre. 

Now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to stand on a merry-go-round and stare menacingly for a bit. Where did we leave that roll-neck sweater?

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