Buzz was brewing around the Steven Yeun-fronted horror movie Mayhem, and yet I’d missed it at a string of genre film festivals, including SXSW, Fantasia, and the Brooklyn Horror Film Fest. It was with a heady anticipation that I finally sat down to see what all the excitement is about. And about five minutes into a tedious prologue that features a novel’s worth of voiceover, blather about a virus that makes people dangerously embrace their emotions, and a sloppy action scene of murder and fucking that included a pair of bare tits disturbingly distorting in slow-motion, I thought only, “Fuck me.”
Yeun stars as Derek Cho, once a bright-eyed young lawyer who, over the course of still more voiceover and an elevator-set montage sequence, becomes a jaded douchebag who helps murderers and corporations escape consequences. In even more voiceover, he pleads to the audience that he tries to do whatever good he can. His “save the cat” moment is stopping a male colleague from screaming at a female secretary by threatening blackmail, revealing a video of this red-faced goon getting head at the office Christmas Party. Then with no self-awareness, he coldly rejects the plea of Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), a smirking and attractive young woman desperate to get the foreclosure on her home overturned. See, Derek aims to make partner some day. But those plans are slaughtered by a sultry co-worker he calls “The Siren” (Caroline Chikezie), who throws him under the bus with a whisper to their boss. He’s fired. But before Derek can be escorted from the building, the whole place is quarantined because the dreaded “red eye virus” has contaminated the offices.
This vicious virus amps up human emotion to a point where it overcomes reason. The first outbreak led to a man stabbing a co-worker repeatedly in the face. And it’s Derek’s firm that got him off, because it was the virus’s fault, not his. So, with that precedent in place, Derek sets out to take his firing to the board, and kill them. It’s a video game premise where he has to work his way up levels, battering office drones and killing off bosses, like The Reaper (Dallas Roberts) who issued his pink slip, and The Siren who laid his head on the chopping block. As his sidekick, he has an uneasy ally in Melissa. But don’t worry. She’s not a real character or anything remotely resembling a human woman. She’s more a sexy pin-up to cackle at his jokes, save his life, be sprayed in blood, and ultimately fuck him. Yeah, sure there’s a half-assed “romance” subplot crammed in to justify the latter, and even their continued allegiance. But even with a mind-bending virus, the idea that one conversation about Dave Matthews Band is enough to cement such an immediate and unshakeable bond is a big pill to swallow.
Beyond that, this movie has a mean streak a mile wide. Every single character is a grotesque person, either indifferent to the plight of others, or cruelly smiling in the face of their pain. Every employee Derek and Melanie come across is single-mindedly interested only in themselves, so the betrayals meant to play as plot twists are telegraphed from the overlong introduction. And on top of that, there’s an overgenerous supply of juvenile and sexist nonsense.
It’s not enough to hate the Siren. Derek has to suggest she saved her job by blowing her boss. And while the movie may think she’s the worst, director Joe Lynch is still happy to offer a low-angle shot of her ass as she leans over a desk. Later, female characters will be called “a pair of tits with zero talent,” “an incompetent cunt,” and “fucking bitch.” But Matias Caruso’s script seems to think this language is subversive instead of sexist, just because he shoved it into the mouths of female characters. And I use the word “character” loosely. Most of the characters in the film have all the depth of cardboard standees. With a runtime of just 87 minutes, Mayhem has no room for character. It’s just a thin excuse to watch office workers giddily kill each other, like The Belko Experiment, which I also found irredeemably mean and juvenile. But at least that bleak movie had the courage of its convictions to stick to its misanthropic tone.
Spoilers for Mayhem ahead.
In the final act, Mayhem dramatically pulls its tone out of a nose dive, abruptly seeking redemption for its murderous and selfish anti-hero. When Derek battles the Big Bad Boss, it’s a phallic-symbol showdown. Derek wields a wrench, because he’s the scrappy hard worker we’re meant to root for, while his boss wields a golf club, a signifying of his status and envious access to elite leisure. Naturally, his boss has to get in a dick joke, yelling, “Mine is bigger, mine is always bigger!” And we’re meant to root for Derek. But what is the difference between these two? They both are selfish, greedy, sexist assholes who treat everyone around them not like people but as pawns or obstacles. In the course of this hot mess of a movie, Derek manages to do one good deed, and notably that’s only for a woman he fucked, literally.
Frustrated office workers looking to blow off steam might welcome the bloody and sophomoric diversion Mayhem offers. Still, I’d suggest Christopher Smith’s 2006 horror-comedy Severence, which not only had gory kills of annoying office workers, but also brandished a sharp and macabre wit. Mayhem’s got gore but a rotten core. And in place of wit, it offers a foul-mouthed ingenue spitting lame insults like, “You open doors like my grandma fucks.”
You might read that and think, ‘What does that even mean?’ Don’t bother thinking about it. Mayhem is evidence no one making it bothered to.
Mayhem hits theaters and will available On Demand / Digital HD November 10, 2017.