On a normal day, in a normal office building just outside Bogotá, Colombia, the morning routine has barely started when the employees of the Belko Corporation receive an unusual ultimatum. Via intercom they are told they must kill a specified number of their colleagues or suffer fatal consequences. Initially believing it to be a prank, the employees congregate in the lobby and try to figure things out. But after the mysterious person on the end of the intercom locks them inside and proves they mean business, everything goes a bit pear shaped.
And thus we have the entire concept and plot of The Belko Experiment, a bloody, violent and darkly humorous horror movie from Australian director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) and writer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy).
At the centre of it all we have voice of reason, pacifist and everyman Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), who stands alongside his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) and their assorted colleagues (Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker among them) up against their boss Barry (Tony Goldwyn) and his management faction, who decide the most ‘agile’ approach to the situation is violent murder.
The ensemble cast is excellent. Gallagher is unsurprisingly great as Mike, in effect the audience’s conscience, refusing to succumb to violence despite the insurmountable odds. Arjona is also very good as Leandra, providing Mike with an alternative perspective; it’s refreshing to see the reality of our “heroes” arguing and disagreeing in accordance with their individual morals. On the other end of the spectrum, Tony Goldwyn plays Barry perfectly, a textbook upper management slimebag; friendly on the surface, simmering with alpha-male authority underneath.
Finally, there’s John C. McGinley as office creep Wendell Dukes. Whether by accident or design, it’s hard not to see his performance as some kind of twisted, alternate reality version of his Office Space character, Bob Slydell, and that is, of course, meant as the highest of praise. McGinley, an underrated actor at the best of times, goes hog wild in Belko and is just great to watch as he stomps around terrorising everyone with meat cleaver in hand.
Battle Royale is the bog-standard lazy benchmark for any last-(hu)man-standing movie, and while conceptually there are clear similarities, it is also true to say that of almost any classic horror movie where survival is the ultimate aim. You might just as well say Belko is an extension of Mad Max’s Thunderdome with elements of Rutger Hauer’s Wedlock. In terms of its aesthetic, the darkly lit, claustrophobic interiors are more than slightly reminiscent of Vincenzo Natali’s enigmatic sci-fi survival pic Cube. In a post screening Q&A, McLean revealed the movies he took for inspiration to be Wolf of Wall Street, Drive and everything by Stanley Kubrick.
The Belko Experiment, although vicious and gory, also hits a vein of black comedy. It’s a horror movie that mines the office setting for all its worth, be it assault with office stationery, or soothing elevator music as counterpoints to acts of bloody mayhem. There is a great deal to enjoy about its unique take on office politics.
Not to get all highbrow about it, because first and foremost this is unashamedly a genre horror flick, but anyone who has ever been consigned to office-work hell will take a perverse delight in seeing Belko’s upper management try to justify homicide through corporate pragmatism. Barry approaches slaughter as if it were a business restructure; the mentality of large organisations treating people as a resource, with scant regard for their humanity, could not be more overtly commented on here. Pure capitalism at work. It’s not subtle, but it is gallows humour at its best.
Gunn, of course, is no stranger to the horror genre, having cut his teeth at Troma and, prior to his success with Marvel, delivering deranged sci-fi horror Slither and deviant vigilante movie Super. He also scripted the surprisingly enjoyable remake of Dawn of the Dead, so he certainly has pedigree in this area. The Belko Experiment feels exactly like an early-career Gunn movie. McLean confirmed in the Q&A that Gunn wrote the script many years ago, but it had long been considered too risky to make, despite being well regarded. It was Gunn’s post-Guardians clout that eventually enabled them to go ahead.
But let’s not overlook McLean’s influence on the proceedings. Although enjoying current buzz for Jungle, it’s nice to see he can still deliver a beating as a horror director. Whether it’s silhouetted blood dripping off weaponised Sellotape, or just a simple run-of-the-mill axe to the face, he has a great eye for the disgusting.
The Belko Experiment gives us vicarious co-worker-dispatching thrills, and the simple pleasures inherent in the repulsive things life has to offer. While one might think it hard to recommend mass slaughter as entertainment, The Belko Experiment demands that it must be done. For horror fans, this is one of the year’s best.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10