Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) drives back to the San Francisco home she shares with her sister Toby (Stefanie Powers) after work at a bank and as she parks the car in the garage and climbs out she notices the door close behind her and suddenly can hear the sound of breathing. Now anxious, she asks if anyone is there and receives her answer swiftly when a man looms up behind her and grabs her round the neck, telling her not to scream. He says he has been watching her closely and knows all about her, also what kind of neighbourhood this is, so he feels pretty confident that nobody will come to her aid right this minute. Then he reaches the crux of the matter: he has a job he wishes Kelly to carry out.
That title was not chosen casually, for as director Blake Edwards had worked in the thriller medium before in his television series Peter Gunn, on film he was better known for his comedies, so he decided to "experiment" and find out if he could successfully create a suspense piece, or as successful as his comedies and romances had been at any rate. The results were favourable, but he never really stayed in the genre, perhaps because he felt he had said all he needed to with this, or otherwise because no matter how well thought of these efforts here were, it was the comedy he was always going to be associated with, and thus pigeonholed he wasn't willing to buck any trends in future.
Certainly he did return to thriller elements, as what were the Pink Panther movies but spoofs of the police whodunit style, but Experiment in Terror remained his most obvious try at leaving out the jokes. This actually paved the way for the cop flicks to come as Hollywood shook off the bonds of film noir in the sixties, though references were still going to be made, and a gritty, more true to life as it was lived (i.e. grim) approach was delivered when the seventies were on their way. You could draw parallels between this and Don Siegel's game changer Dirty Harry, with the straight ahead, no nonsense lawman, Glenn Ford as FBI agent John Ripley, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood if more measured in his demeanour, and they both had significant scenes in a baseball stadium.
And both those sequences ended with the same shot as the movie psychos, utterly reprehensible in each, were at a disadvantage on the diamond. While the title might suggest a horror film, Edwards was more interested in keeping events grounded in reality and therefore a lot of locations shooting was employed, itself a hark back to Andrew L. Stone's Cry Terror! so you could trace this in a line running from the earliest form of the thriller right up to the present, though Experiment in Terror was more a part of where television mysteries and cop shows were going to end up as the small screen dominated the examples in its production line conveyer belt of such diversions. Nevertheless, for a while there it could be regarded as groundbreaking in a manner possibly modest, but significant.
Back at the plot, it was not too convention-disrupting as we still had the damsel (or damsels) in distress to be concerned about when the villain (Ross Martin, gradually revealed) plagues Kelly with telephone calls that make no bones about their menace. He has already made it clear he is keeping a very close watch on her and that he'll know if she contacts the authorities, which she does, that’s how Ripley gets involved as the tough but fair representative of the forces of good, bringing up another aspect that would feed into the more conservative thrillers to come, that the agent of law was going to be living by a very strict code, be that his official job's (see Harry Callaghan) or his own (see Popeye Doyle), both supplying a very moral mindset that they might not necessarily stick to in their actions but obeyed its spirit in bringing down the bad guys. The most rule bending Ripley does is using a stool pigeon (Ned Glass), and this did drag on a shade too long, certainly past the point where you really felt the FBI should have wrapped things up, but its crisp photography and eyes narrowed technique were easy to appreciate. Music by Henry Mancini.