It’s pretty rare that marketing campaigns lean on the screenwriter of a genre movie, but it’s not every day that the filmmaker behind a massive Disney space opera would also release a nasty little horror/comedy simultaneously. Granted, James Gunn wrote the script for The Belko Experiment many years ago in a far different era of his career, back when he was making flicks like Slither and Super that viciously and cynically toyed with audience emotions and genre conventions. The Belko Experiment was one of the harshest scripts he ever dreamed up and Gunn being Gunn, he decided to use the success of the Guardians Of The Galaxy to finally get this dirty little ditty off the ground. Sure, it’s not the most original concept in the world (you can practically hear the pitch “It’s Battle Royale meets Office Space” ringing in your ears throughout the running time), but it is an effective bit of dirty fun for sickos who enjoy such things.
The flick takes place in Columbia, where a heartless US corporation has moved a collection of American office drones for mysterious reasons. Our hero is John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) a wiseass who is too smart for paper pushing but has accepted his fate. He’s got a girlfriend in the office (Adria Arjona), some goofy friends, a couple awkward bosses he dislikes (Tony Goldwyn and the great John C. McGinely), and all the other usual Dilbert annoyances. The dull day starts like any other until suddenly all of the doors lock, the metal window shutters slam shut, and a voice announces through an intercom that the staff has thirty minutes to murder two co-workers or a greater number will die. They all panic but don’t do anything, assuming that it’s all a test or a sick joke. Then a handful of heads explode on cue and the voice announces that more people must be murdered or there will by an even higher exploding head count. Tensions rise and the white collar clan starts to find reason and rationale for murdering a few to save many. It gets even messier from there.
So, it’s a nasty satirical concept from producer and writer James Gunn, and while it’s not exactly subtle, the satire rings true. More importantly, it’s a hell of a concept for an exploitation flick. All of the right elements are there: a claustrophobic setting, a built-in suspense clock, opportunities for characters to show hidden darkness, and of course big puddles of fake blood. Even better, the cast is filled with character actors to play out the dirty deeds of the screenplay. Some are cast to type (Gallagher’s wise ass with a heart of gold especially) others are delightfully cast against type (Michael Rooker and John C. McGinley are fantastic, just not necessarily in the ways that you might expect). Everyone plays things deadly straight, which gives the ludicrous concept the credibility necessary to play out with a sense of tragedy and sells the heaping helpings of dark humour through perverse deadpan.
Since James Gunn had plans to shoot his second volume of Guardians Of The Galaxy goodness last year, directing this throwback to his old grimy ways wasn’t possible. Instead, Australian Wolf Creek director McLean stepped in and that proved to be an intriguing choice. Undoubtedly, if Gunn had been in charge of The Belko Experiment, it would have been more of a goofy exercise in sick slapstick with a tragic edge (a la Super). Instead, McLean provided his more personal twisted tone, which treats it all as straight horror with unexpected bursts of gallows humour to add to the dread. It works brilliantly in the first hour, which is an almost unbearably tense escalation of horror, but not quite as much in the back half where things get perhaps a little too bleak for such a stylized and high-concept genre movie. Still, it works and the horror hounds will likely appreciate McLean’s more unforgiving touch.
While Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy sequel is out there pleasing the masses and quietly speaking to the freaks who need acceptance, this slice of summer counter-programming is more specifically targeted at outcasts seeking grisly entertainment true to their distaste of humanity. Sure, that’s not the widest audience in the world. However, sickos with a Shudder subscription and horror convention experience should appreciate this nasty little shocker with a dark heart and even darker sense of humour. Shocking, hilarious, smart, and boasting the finest exploding head sequences since Kingsman, The Belko Experiment is sure to please anyone out there with a taste for blood and a sense of humour about the darkest impulses humanity has to offer. In other words, it’s fun for the whole dysfunctional family!