Would you be willing to kill in order to stay alive? That’s the central question THE BELKO EXPERIMENT asks, and it answers it in the nastiest possible way. This is a mean film, happy to explode heads as it posits that question in yours. It’s also an exercise in tension, as an entire office building goes on lockdown and the staff within, numbering 80 lives, plunges straight into Hell. Though I usually shy away from horror flicks with a mean streak, that tension, and what choices character make under it, is the reason I can recommend it.
It starts off normally enough, with the staff driving into the company parking lot. But this mundane exercise is a little off kilter, as there are armed soldier types at the gates, checking IDs. The movie introduces the standard office stereotypes (the caring COO, the older guy with a crush on the young hottie across from his cubicle, the couple who are keeping their relationship a secret, the new gal on her first day) as everyone goes about their everyday business. Then a voice comes over the loudspeaker, as steel sections slide up over the windows, sealing up the building airtight and imprisoning the staff. The voice states that the staff must kill two of their own within a half hour, or there will be repercussions. At first, many of them think this is a joke, but levelheaded Mike Milch errs on the side of caution and tries to get everybody to the lobby and out of the building. After two building maintenance guys fail to cut through with a blowtorch, and a few others try to get help from the roof, that 30 minutes passes and several heads explode. It turns out the entire staff is hardwired to blow, with “security chips” implanted in their heads.
The flick then explores the gamut of human reactions: some will not kill because they think it immoral; some will try to devise a plan to stick together and get out as a group; the more alpha members will take to killing others, some to save themselves, others to save a higher number of their associates. The tension torques up after the first few deaths when the voice says they have two hours to kill 30, or the unseen powers will kill double that. Milch is the moral center, the one who seeks higher ground for everyone even at the expense of his own life. After trying to remove the explosive from his own head in a brutal scene, he later risks his life in a try to hang a rescue sign off the roof, and makes several adversaries when he dismantles the blowtorch tanks and prevents COO Barry Norris and head henchman Wendell Dukes from getting to the company’s supply of guns and ammo.
All this is perfectly suitable, and makes for some compelling stuff in some scenes. Everything devolves as quickly as a movie such as this leans on things devolving, and it’s pretty horrifying watching one guy gun down victims on their knees execution style as another counts them off. The problem is, I’ve seen all of this before. The basic premise was done much better in 2009, in the flick EXAM. The bickering and turning on each other in facing a crisis is right out of the Romero school of thought, minus the zombies and crazies. And Wes Craven tackled the whole idea of when a man defending himself against monsters becomes a monster himself 40 years ago in THE HILLS HAVE EYES. This flick is a concoction of ideas that other movies have taken to their natural extremes, leaving THE BELKO EXPERIMENT with little fresh to say, which is sad. It could’ve been an interesting exercise if it had taken some new angle on the material.
Speaking of extremes, the flick is at its most natural when it pushes the violence. This is not a movie for those with a weak stomach, as bloodshed is the course of the day at Belko Industries. Once those first few heads burst, the arterial spray is relentless. There’s one point late in the game, where a mass of heads explode throughout the building; the scene ends with spurts hitting a wall, one by one, as each head pops in procession. I am not kidding, folks: this movie has a mean streak a building wide, as the innocent try to evade slaughter at the hands of their office mates, often only to have their heads blown off from the unseen enemy. It’s grim stuff, which does not make for a fun 90 minutes.
I don’t often like grim, so it’s out of the norm for me to recommend this flick. But recommend it I do, based mostly on the acting. As Mike Milch, John Gallagher Jr. is about as good as one could hope for. He brings an intelligence and a caring to the character, which helps save THE BELKO EXPERIMENT from being schlock. I wanted him to survive, even if the odds against that were overwhelming. Tony Goldwyn is solid as Barry. Though I’m supposed to hate him because he’s decided to kill in order to save himself, he’s also playing out the whole “needs of the many” thing with the numbers game. Not the way I would play it, but Goldwyn is an old pro, and knows how to layer his character. John C. McGinley, however, is playing an asshole in Wendell, and he excels at it. It’s apparent that director Greg McLean got all the actors to invest, as the many minor characters come across as real. It’s also kind of fun to realize that James Gunn wrote the script, and was supposed to direct; a bunch of his repertory actors represent here, which gives the flick a link to Troma. James’ brother Sean steals the show as the stoner who goes from “hey, this take this as a paid day off,” to “Holy shit! They drugged the water!” The large ensemble grounds the premise, and I really felt for them as they died, one by one and later en masse.
As I mentioned in my intro, the tension that builds is the main selling point after the characters. Stress builds quickly as the day goes from mundane to Hellacious over the course of a few hours. The drama and conflict escalate immediately as sanity collapses into chaos, with a charming COO picking off people with a handgun as Wendell happily slashes away with a meat cleaver from the company’s kitchen. Hiding may work for a while, as the meek new employee realizes on her first day, but it can’t last forever. The tension builds to a head as the last two survivors square off, and carries into a coda that shows this is not an isolated experiment going on in this worldwide company.
The other reason BELKO works for me is that I put myself in that building as I was watching. I find it very hard to believe I could ever kill someone, even to save myself. Would I do it to save others, though? If I didn’t, how would I look at myself in the mirror if I made it out alive? What would the mirror tell me if I did participate in the bloodletting? There are no easy answers without actually being under that duress, of course, but I’d like to think I’d be like Mike Milch, working out all angles to save as many people as possible while avoiding killing any of them. That might not be easy while walking the tightrope those 80 had to walk.
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT never quite achieves a voice of its own, as it’s more a patchwork of ideas stitched together from better films. It’s too grim to enjoy or call fun, but it’s a solid exercise in tension and a blood red dream for the gorehounds out there. It’s not a flick I’d watch again anytime soon, but it’s a solid horror flick, far from a failed experiment all its own.