An old friend of mine was saying how horror was going through a pretty mean-spirited phase during the mid noughties. Not only with the Saw and Hostel movies, it infected all the genre films around, as if it was a reaction to the jokey times of the Scream movies and their like a few years before. You could say we’ve moved on, with hauntings and possessions being back in vogue along with John Carpenter homages and other eighties throwbacks its like horror has become fun again. Don’t you worry though, The Belko Experiment has come to take that fun away.
The Belko Experiment claims to be a cross between Office Space and Battle Royale and in that it is set in an office and involves people thrown into a kill-or-be-killed situation it is just that. But really the underlying tone is the grim downbeat nihilism of the Saw movies. Does anyone care about that kind of stuff any more? Isn’t there enough of it in the real world?
Hey, lets not totally knock The Belko Experiment. Director Greg McLean handles everything very well, it all looks good and is suitably tense. What really helps is the excellent and experienced cast. Tony Goldwyn is used to playing dicks ever since he was Patrick Swayze’s best friend in Ghost, but recently he’s been playing suaver characters like POTUS in Scandal. Here he combines the two – he’s both the superior CEO of this branch of the mysterious Belko company and pretend friend to his co workers. When a voice over tells them they have to kill 30 people in the building or 60 will die Goldwyn puts his business head on and goes about working out who should die – this is, after all, only business. That’s one of the best aspects of the script, dealing with how the cost of human life and business can be seen as separate so cold calculations can be made.
On the other side of the moral debate, pointing out death can never be taken lightly is likable John Gallagher Jnr as l, I guess, the Tim from The Office. He is the one who always states the bleedin’ obvious. When told they have to kill thirty of them he points out that once that is done then the would still face another round of deaths. The film mostly centres around Gallagher and Goldwyn as the two opposing forces, basically two views on how to run the business. This aspect of the film is the most interesting but it can’t last: sooner or later it has to become a bloodbath, it’s just inevitable.
Other good characters played by other good actors abound. Adrian Arjona as Gallagher’s girlfriend has a great start of an arc as she is clearly torn between her loyalty to him and what her business head is telling her to do, i.e. join Goldwyn’s side. Unfortunately his side contains hard toothed and square headed John C. McGinley as a demented office manager and stalker of Arjona. For a while it seems she will join Goldwyn and co even though she told McGinley to fuck off five minutes beforehand. Unfortunately this story idea evaporates as the film progresses. And this seems to be the main problem with The Belko Experiment – lots of good ideas, none of them fulfilled
A perfect example of this would be Melonie Diaz as an office worker who has pretty much a completely different story to everyone else. She spends a lot of time crawling down tunnels and finding herself witnessing or being dragged into other people’s dramas and deaths. Eventually she takes control of things and manipulates the situation to her advantage. We follow her for long stretches having her own adventures and it’s a really interesting idea, having a second story running concurrently to the main one. But then, right at the end (SPOILERS) she opens a lift door onto the final survivors and is immediately shot in the noggin, dead. What a waste of a plotline and character.
Ultimately I don’t think that The Belko Experiment is all that good. It feels like the script was either overworked with chunks missing from it, or not worked on enough, with ideas severely underdeveloped. The cast do their best as does McLean, but ultimately it’s a pretty cold film with not enough of The Office and too much of Battle Royal. It gets too caught up in its violence to properly entertain. There’s some humour to be had here but mostly it all feels a tad too familiar. It’s not really that far away from Blum House’s own The Purge series – normal people being allowed to kill their fellow citizens – but lacks those films’s comic strip sensibilities. So if you really want to see a horror version of Office Space then please watch Severance instead. That’s a film that is able to be both funny and nasty in just the right way.