If there was one film purposefully designed for Midnight Madness, it might just be The Belko Experiment. Equal parts The Cabin in the Woods and Battle Royale, the “kill your co-worker” flick is tailor-made for horror audiences looking for a rocking good time.
Written by James Gunn and directed by Australian director Greg McLean, The Belko Experiment concerns a murderous experiment at the secluded Belko company building in Bogota, Colombia. The film opens as the local employees are turned away by a new security team outside of the compound, but no one notices anything strange until a threatening announcement over the PA system demands that two employees are killed in the next thirty minutes. The building then immediately goes into full- lockdown and panic begins to set in. Despite the protests that it is only a joke from COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn, smarmy as ever), attitudes change when time expires and four peoples’ heads explode. From there the tension and violence escalate through the two remaining phases of the experiment as co-workers, friends and lovers turn on each other in order to survive.
The combination of Gunn and McLean is a marriage made in heaven for horror fans. Gunn’s script is clever, moves quickly and, most importantly, is funny enough to balance out the morally depraved behaviour of the characters. McLean, the director best known for the sweeping Australian landscapes of Wolf Creek and Rogue, proves surprisingly adept at reinforcing the claustrophobic enclosures of the Belko building. One standout scene occurs at the end of the second phase when 30 murders are demanded by the disembodied voice or 60 will be executed at random. Naturally the request divides the group: most want to find an alternative such as hanging signs off the roof, but a small contingency rationalizes that killing 30 will buy the survivors more time. Things come to a head when the smaller, more powerful group (including a deranged John C. McGinley and a remorseful Owain Yeoman) take control. McLean stages the ensuing conflict masterfully, ratcheting up the tension as victims are divided into groups, then plucked randomly from the crowd of cowering employees. Just as the antagonists begin to execute the row of kneeling victims, the room is plunged into darkness, prompting everyone to scatter. The only light comes from the gunfire as Mclean cuts from hallways, to the cafeteria, to stairwells as people are brutally massacred. It’s a frantic, dizzying bloodbath that kicks the film into high gear through to its conclusion.
One of The Belko Experiment’s greatest assets is its cast, which is populated with genre vets and character actors. Although nearly all of the roles are tropes (hero and heroine, plus the new employee, the gay, the stoner, the psycho, etc) the film never feels reductive. Gunn’s script follows some familiar beats, but the humour keep things fresh and several of the deaths are legitimately surprising. A favourite goes out early and one late in the film death was so unexpected that the audience groaned with disappointment and surprise. One small complaint it is that The Belko Experiment relies too heavily on gun battles to winnow down the ranks, especially heading into the finale. Considering that the setting naturally provides a variety of office-related weapons, several of which – including a tape dispenser, metal rebars in the basement and a moving elevator – deliver some of the most creative deaths of the film, the reliance on guns is mildly disappointing.
Still, it’s a small gripe for such a rollicking crowd-pleaser. Conventional audiences may grapple with the dark view of humanity that the film adopts, but Gunn’s script ensures the film never reaches the grim darkness of, say, Xavier Gens’ The Divide. Horror fans, the film’s obvious intended audience, on the other hand, will find plenty to cheer about in this near perfect cocktail of murder and laughs. It’s one hell of a ride.