The Belko Experiment desperately wants you to believe it’s three things:
- A schlocky, no-holds-barred horror gore-fest;
- At times, a genuinely jarring shocker; and
- A searing satire on office politics to which any co-worker can relate.
Reaching for all three, it struggles to be any.
70-odd workers trapped in their Colombian office complex and told by a loudspeaker if they don’t start killing each other that they’re going to be picked off at random is a fascinating concept for a film. Better still for casting a talented slate that you might just recognise from a series of supporting roles, John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom) joins John C. McGinley (Office Space), Sean Gunn (Gilmore Girls), Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy), Tony Goldwyn (Ghost), Josh Brener (Silicon Valley) and Adria Arjona (True Detective); headliners of an enviable cast for an ostensibly cheesy, in some senses lo-fi horror flick.
Directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, Wolf Creek 2) and written by James Gunn (Super, Guardians of the Galaxy), The Belko Experiment bears all the sheen of their later efforts but none of the piercing grit nor biting commentary of their earlier, celebrated outings. Kicking off with gory hubris, the film contains a genuinely clever and ably foreshadowed method of dispatching those who refuse to follow the rules. Predictably, colleagues split off into bands ala Battle Royale and Hunger Games, though in this case, unlike the blockbusters, each of the more resolutely sadistic co-workers are barely distinguishable and in almost every sense of similar form and purpose.
Their and others summary and gruesome executions of former cubicle-buddies less frequent than you might think; the filmmakers choose instead to focus on various fleeting, failed attempts to undermine the game-makers. Much of the carnage takes place in one scene which abruptly and dispassionately shifts the action from a series of semi-innovative ways to die to a sadistically shocking sequence the likes of which does not rear its head again, standing alone as an addition better suited to a horror flick sans The Belko Experiment’s inherent comic touches. Attempts to counterpoint these moments with uncharacteristically mirthful music, a technique better adopted by Quentin Tarantino in, for instance, Reservoir Dogs, fall flat in a series of largely tone-deaf encounters that neglect to pivot to either of the film’s schlocky or more horrific tonal ends, entirely disparate in and of themselves; rendering these key junctures more akin to the inclusion of Enya in one of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s less considered moments.
(Having said this, the not infrequent additions of Spanish-language covers of classic pop hits remains one of the film’s better innovations).
The satirical elements, better handled in McGinley’s previous and much-loved commentary on office politics, are introduced with broad brushstrokes most heavily at a relatively late stage in the picture; this most brutal scene amongst those which stood to benefit from a more lighthearted if unapologetically macabre take on the dynamics of office hierarchies, rather than a pivot to the tried and tested ‘survival of the fittest’ tropes replete through like fare.
The passing semblance and sparing visuals of actual violence apparent throughout, McLean appearing intent at times on having the audience fill in the blanks when he just as well could have shown exactly what they turned up to see, lends the film neither to the schlocky aberration nor subversive streak it is both irregularly trying to impress. The severely anti-climactic ending for one of The Belko Experiment’s central characters, neglecting here at the film’s most critical opportunity to fully embrace its schlocky roots via a number of readily apparent penultimate scenarios which could have played better to the film’s skull-crunching strengths, does it no favours. Nor does the conclusion itself endear the flick; building tension throughout for a by-the-numbers and roundly unimaginative final sequence that, like so many of its swithering excursions down the genre rabbit-hole, does nothing to further the impact of the carnage that came before.
The Belko Experiment screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival – for tickets head to the Festival website