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Let’s talk about James Gunn. Before 2014’s smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy Gunn was a bit of an unknown. He had made a few good movies, most notably Super and Slither which undoubtedly endeared him to the film geek in everyone’s life, but he wasn’t necessarily a sought after auteur filmmaker. That’s been true of a lot of Marvel’s collection of misfit and maverick directors, with the most common thread being a cult success like Joss Whedon’s Firefly or the Russo Brother’s work on Community.
Now, however, Gunn is a name in Hollywood, and that means he’s got the kind of clout to do what he wants now. Most Marvel directors go through this period, some coming out stronger like Jon Favreau giving us Chef and The Jungle Book while others squander the chance, like Alan Taylor following up Thor: The Dark World with Terminator Genisys. As for Gunn, while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is on his plate, his real follow-up effort has taken the form of a grimy horror flick called The Belko Experiment.
Well, that was awesome. I should explain from the get-go that this movie is basically tailor made for me on every conceivable level. I’m a huge horror junkie from the get go so seeing Gunn return to the genre of his origin is a great delight. Even though he’s not directing like he did Slither he is writing, putting this film about on the level of the Dawn of the Dead remake.
That might not sound like much but bare in mind: Gunn’s writing managed to give us one of the best zombie films of the 2000s and easily the best Zack Snyder film, which is no small feat. So if his other duties mean he’s just writing Belko Experiment rather than directing as well I’m fine with that.
Actually, the direction comes to us courtesy of Greg McLean, who horror fans might recognize as the Australian director behind Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek is one of the more popular 2000s horror films and one of the only post-American Werewolf in London werewolf movies to be considered any good, to the point it’s actually getting a TV revival now. This means that Belko Experiment is being done by two guys behind two of the only genuinely good horror films of the 2000s, which is a damn good sign even without this awesome trailer.
As to the plot, as the very straight forward trailer informs us: there’s some kind of an isolated office block owned entirely by the titular Belko, which is some sort of mega-corporation. Seemingly on a whim, the corporation has elected to lock down their office block with steel shutters and armed guards and order everyone within to turn on each other in brutal, gladiatorial combat. It’s basically The Purge by way of Office Space with some pretty clear parallel points being made to the likes of Brazil, Cabin in the Woods, Cube, and the likes of Saw or Vacancy.
Gunn and McLean seem to be eschewing any real stars of note. Most folks will recognize Michael Rooker from Walking Dead as well as Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy, though eagle-eyed viewers will also spot John C. McGinley who was Dr. Cox on Scrubs. I like this particular wrinkle; it fits the overall grungy and low-rent sensibility of the entire project. What the project most reminds me of is the ultra-violent horror-action stylings of mom and pop video stores that we were inundated with in the ‘80s, but that makes a good deal of sense.
If you look at Gunn’s early work, especially Super, he’s always embraced that particular era of schlock filmmaking where the baser genres gave way to rawness and genuine meaning. His style encompasses a rough-edged, gory dive-bar aesthetic and wallows in the basest emotions it can evoke but it does so in the name of making a point, and in the case of The Belko Experiment that point seems very timely.
I compared the film to The Purge earlier and while there are obvious superficial similarities in the “ordinary people forced to murder” premise, the gory takedown of capitalist society is thoroughly in harmony with the tune of the Purge films. That’s obviously a very timely message for the movie but the fact it’s present at all is a big part of the stylistic trappings the film is choosing to embrace.
See, for about 40 years “indie cinema” in the US meant low-budget schlock usually catering to genres of a baser nature: drive-in monster movies in the ‘50s, proto-porno nudie flicks in the ‘60s, grindhouse and exploitation in the ‘70s, and sleaze ‘n’ cheese urban produce straight to video features from the ‘80s.
As I mentioned earlier, Gunn is diving deep into the ‘80s end of that spectrum, right down to the retro Orion logo we got before this trailer. One of the significant component of that era in indie cinema is that because these flicks were often ultra-gory action fests through urban blight and decay, they ended up accidentally counter-cultural.
The thinking at the time was mentioning one of America’s failings meant you were against America (so different from nowadays, I know,) but the producers of the era chose to embrace this accidental countercultural streak.
This led to a lot of the sleaze ‘n’ cheese flicks of the time being about something like Toxic Avengers environmentalism or The Stuff’s anti-capitalist sentiment. We’ve already seen what this kind of un-ironic, gonzo embrace of the ‘80s VHS aesthetic can yield in Hobo With A Shotgun and while Gunn and McLean aren’t really embracing the visual aesthetic they’ve gone head first into the blood, guts, and social underpinnings.
Cards on the table, I’m an absolute sucker for gladiatorial combat flicks so I was probably always going to be on board for this movie but I also think it’s going to legitimately find an audience beyond geeks like me. It’s an uncertain time and Belko Experiment seems to be tapping into that uncertainty and anger at the systems they’ve so often failed our society really well. What’s more it’s made by a pair of thoroughly talented creators with a pretty solid cast. I’ve suggested previously that the demise of schlock filmmaking has been a real blow to American cinema- maybe this is where it comes back.
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