James Gunn teams up with Wolf Creek legend Greg McLean to dive back into his ultra-dark love of genre, and deliver this sensationally bloody ode to office life.
Originally written nearly ten years ago and shelved for what almost bordered on eternity, it seems strange that one of Gunn’s most vicious projects to date is finally seeing the light of day now.
True, the Troma poster-boy turned franchise king is more popular than ever thanks to Marvel’s hugely profitable band of a-holes (and a second Guardians of the Galaxy movie is just weeks away), but to dance from directing a family-friendly worldwide phenomenon to writing and producing one of the most violent movies we’ve ever seen is a huge leap. Gunn being Gunn, it works though. Just about.
And despite handing over directing duties to the even more darkly-minded McLean, this still feels like a James Gunn project through and through, blending the usual excessive gore with plenty of pitch-black laughs.
Pitched as somewhere between Battle Royale meets Office Space, and one of those deeply psychotic social experiments from the 60s and 70s, The Belko Experiment envisions an office environment where everyone from human resources to security and maintenance is pitted against each other in a no-holds-barred battle to the death.
A mysterious voice informs the employees of a secluded office block in rural Columbia that if thirty people aren’t dead within a few hours, they’ll all be forced to bite the proverbial bullet. And of course, madness and violence ensues.
A who’s who of B-list talent are soon taking shots at each other, dividing off into gangs based on moral inclination and/or thirst for blood, and one thing becomes overwhelmingly clear very early on: McLean and Gunn really aren’t dicking around here. Belko is seriously, seriously violent, and not just in a flippantly goretastic, slasher movie type way either; with both morality and reality taking centre stage here, every death hurts.
Whether it’s a likeable simpleton being chopped down one act too soon, or an execution-style line-up that’s just a little too real to stomach, this is about as dark as either filmmaker has really been in years, or maybe ever. Even regular gore-fiends and horror-hounds might find this one a little too hard to process in places, and whilst the underlying social commentary is subtle enough and adds a neat little extra dimension to the bloodletting overall, it makes it a whole lot harder to stick through too.
On the brighter side, Gunn packs the picture with plenty of his regular alumni who all find plenty of room to shine. Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn are surprisingly sweet, whilst newbies John Gallagher Jr. and Tony Goldwyn really hold down the good versus evil divide beautifully. Melonie Diaz is clever enough, even if she does end up as the brunt of the film’s longest running joke, and Scrubs star John C. McGinley throws a totally transformative and welcome burst of (fully psychotic) energy into the ring to no doubt much fan applause.
Gunn’s script is terrifically structured, and inventive enough when it needs to be, and the characters themselves really pop off the screen well. Otherwise McLean basically lets the cameras roll and the cast do their thing; the only major roadblock he really finds himself up against quite regularly is Belko’s seemingly limited budget.
Reused hallways, a spot of dodgy CG, and a thoroughly uninspired finale don’t quite make it out alive, despite the actual action itself holding up well. It’s really just a matter of McLean covering his tracks here, and he doesn’t always quite manage it.
On the whole though it must be said that The Belko Experiment is a huge punt in the right direction for genre cinema in 2017. Violent, well-rooted and very occasionally nasty, it’s both thoughtful and crowd-pleasing in equal measure, and offers up one of the year’s most unforgiving body-counts, guaranteed.
The Belko Experiment hits UK cinemas on 21st April.