Box Office Democracy: The Belko Experiment

I saw two different kinds of ads for The Belko Experiment before it came out.  There were ads that were pitching it as a more or less straight up horror movie, and then there were ads that were selling it as a kind of comedy-horror hybrid.  It used a quote from an early review saying it was “Office Space meets Battle Royale” and while that’s a fine thing for a critic to say in a review as a shorthand to explain the movie, as an advertisement it’s completely inadequate.  The Belko Experiment isn’t funny and 99% of the time doesn’t even seem to be trying to be funny.  It’s more like Battle Royale meets a tall building or Battle Royale meets Die Hard if you want to just completely ignore anything that made Die Hard a good movie and just want to focus on the general aesthetic of the sets.

The titular experiment in Belko is: they seal an office building up and demand that the inhabitants kill each other in escalating quotas.  If you’ve ever seen any movie before, you can probably get from here to the end of the story.  There’s an everyman main character, a love interest, an antagonistic coworker, a friend coworker, a boss, and a bunch of nameless drones (allegedly 75 other office workers, but I would be absolutely floored if they had 80 actors in this movie).  The beats are all telegraphed, and there are no surprises bigger than something you knew was going to happen happening a few moments before you expected it.  This is a shockingly mundane affair for a movie with so much bloodshed.  There’s supposed to be some grand moral conflict here but it never gets off the ground; at best it’s like having the movie read you the Cliff’s Notes of Lord of the Flies.

I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to horror movies, so when I tell you that The Belko Experiment didn’t scare me at all I want you to understand what a low bar that was to limbo under.  Perhaps I’ve just been too desensitized to violence over the year but sudden violence is all this film has— and while I don’t love looking at gore, it isn’t inherently scary.  There’s very little tension events just sort of smoothly follow each other.  There’s no doubt in the outcome (although I suppose I never watch a slasher movie expecting the killer to win, those can still be scary) and so the audience is left watching the movie go from scene to scene checking off boxes until the finale can start.  The marketing for this film couldn’t wait to tell you that this was a James Gunn script, but left out that it was one from seven years ago that he didn’t think was strong enough to make on his own. The Belko Experiment needed two more drafts and a compelling antagonist to be even close to a competent horror movie.

The real shame is that John C. McGinley gets a stunning star turn in a movie that no one will remember in five years.  I doubt anyone who has really paid attention to his career is surprised that McGinley has the chops to steal a movie from a cast full of TV actors and marginal film stars, but he runs away with every scene he’s in.  He’s given a wide berth and no specific tethers to any sort of reality after the first ten minutes.  He’s the closest this movie has to the Joker— which is to say not particularly close, but a shining star compared to the dull surroundings.

The Belko Experiment is a Blumhouse film, and I think that explains a lot of what’s wrong with it.  It’s clearly made on a shoestring budget, and it very clearly doesn’t have the passionate backing of a big studio behind it.  What I don’t get is how this movie got put in to theaters instead of straight to digital.  This is an okay movie for $5 on iTunes or as part of Netflix or however the other Blumhouse movies get out there.  Nothing about The Belko Experiment feels like it has the polish of a feature film except the name James Gunn in the opening credits.