Nine years ago, writer/director James Gunn had the slick and sickening horror-comedy Slither under his belt, yet could get no momentum on an office-set slaughter fest called The Belko Experiment. But when scrappy filmmakers make it big, the weird little passion projects they once shelved at long last can be dusted off. So, in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy’s worldwide success, Gunn tried to get Belko on track once more, and this time the wheels found traction. The project picked up speed as Wolf Creek director Greg McLean committed to helm Gunn’s screenplay, and charismatic character actors like Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, and Michael Rooker signed on. Finally, a trailer arrived that had Gunn’s fans geeking out in anticipation of another wicked and wild horror-comedy.
There’s just one big problem. The tone sold in this trailer does not exist in The Belko Experiment. There’s no camp to the carnage, no joy to be found in the absurd slaughter. The only thing that this “Battle Royale meets Office Space” movie has in common with Office Space is a workplace setting and the inclusion of McGinley. This is not a comedy by any measure. Gunn’s signature irreverent humor is completely absent. And all that’s left is the grim nihilistic horror for which McLean is known. Movies like The Belko Experiment make me forget why I like horror. There’s no fun to be found here, just relentless, senseless slaughter.
Set in Bogota, Colombia, the story begins on an office day like any other. Employees from all over the world numbly file into the big concrete block of an office building, though some raise an eyebrow when they realize the locals who work here have been turned away at the security gate. Gunn’s script flits about the building briefly, introducing a bevvy of thinly sketched characters like the gruff maintenance guy (Rooker), the squirrelly stoner (Sean Gunn), and the new girl (Melanie Diaz). Then an announcement sounds over the intercom alerting the staff that they are trapped and must follow directions or die. As impenetrable metal slabs slide over every window and door, the voice tells Belko employees they must kill each other, or be killed. What follows is not so much riveting showdowns, as much as cruel cycles of screaming, hiding, and pleading, thanks to the predictable rise of a trio of Alpha Males who decide to play God, killing the elderly, the mouthy, and anyone else who dares to get in their way.
Amid scenes of brutal murder, the film’s hero—a white, cis-hetero Beta male played by John Gallagher Jr.—fruitlessly attempts to appeal to the better natures of his co-workers, pleading there must be another way out of this hell. But the film makes no effort to suggest that’s anything but vain hope. So, his pleading becomes increasingly infuriating, especially as his protests get those around him killed while he (incredibly and repeatedly) survives. I’d speculate that’s meant as some sort of commentary on privilege, but The Belko Experiment isn’t clever enough for that. It barely has a plot.
Gunn’s script has no sense of momentum. The initial threat from the unknown voice hangs in the air like a fart in a conference meeting, making everyone uncomfortable but accomplishing nothing. Even as the unseen authority starts picking off employees, the only plans that arise are most frantically flailing to escape, as the Alphas go for the office guns. Yup. This office has a weapons stash. Guns mean the deaths come ferocious and fast, with no chance of the unarmed fighting back. No hope. As a potential Final Girl is unceremoniously shot between the eyes, I was reminded of the spine-severing scene in Wolf Creek. Which was horrifying and crushing, as in crushing any interest I have in spending any more time in this merciless movie world. If you’re someone who watches horror to hang on the hero overcoming seemingly insurmountable evil, The Belko Experiment is not for you.
The introduction of guns not only slays hope, but also throttles the potential for clever kills. Gunn could have employed the workplace setting in these scenes, turning mundane office supplies into newly sinister tools. But because the characters crash the cafeteria for cutlery and burgle the gun closet for firearms, there’s not much imagination in the violence. Despite repeated close-ups of female employees’ stilettos, none are used to stab or maim! And it’s not until the third act that Beta’s over-it girlfriend dismantles a paper cutter, making a DIY machete. For one brief moment, as she barrels down on a casual acquaintance with the now-dangerous blade, you get a glance of the premise potential that was wasted in execution.
Likewise, Gunn could have set up recognizable office stereotypes like the brown-noser, the doormat, the “cool” boss, and then played with how those character types might warp under life-threatening pressure. To be fair, his script does offer the office’s requisite leering creeper character, but there’s nothing unexpected about that guy going homicidal. And the other characters are so barely there that they aren’t even stereotypes, just the gay guy, the Black girl, and the dude with the ant farm. Because they are not established enough to elicit much empathy, the murder scenes muster only a dull, growing sense of dread that’s not escapist or diverting, just miserable.
As it is, The Belko Experiment is a ruthless and mean horror movie that relishes in the arbitrariness of life and death. Admittedly, that’s a subgenre I personally abhor, and the bait and switch of the trailer felt like a smirking sucker punch. But setting personal preference aside, this is still a poorly made movie, with frustratingly forgettable characters and gallingly flubbed fight scenes. McLean made the mystifying decision to have most of the office’s floors look identical, offering no visual cues to where characters are as the story leaps from place to place. Further muddying the geography are a confounding lack of establishing shot, and an edit that is genuinely dizzying, snuffing out tension as the audience squints to make sense of what just happened on screen. Which is all to say, this experiment is a failure, and a bloody, ugly mess that’d have been better left on that dusty shelf.