Posted on March 30, 2017

The Belko Experiment: Aesthetical Violence Meets Life Boat Ethics

Elizabeth Erwin

Please be aware this discussion contains spoilers.

To say that I have been looking forward to screening The Belko Experiment, directed by Greg McClean and written by James Gunn, is an understatement. The well-designed trailer for the film positioned it as another entry in the increasingly growing oeuvre of “life boat ethics”[i] horror films in which survival is intimately tied to the choices one makes when thrown into a moral quandary. These films, in which ethics and choice collide, are somewhat unique to the genre in that the physical violence is secondary to the psychological warfare being waged. Consider, for example, the first Saw film in which the majority of the narrative tension comes not from the actual acts being perpetrated but by the struggle of the unwilling game participant to make a choice.  Early trailers for The Belko Experiment, which showed the film to be about a group of employees who are held hostage by an unseen mastermind and forced to decide who in the group should die so that others could survive, gave every indication that this film would follow the conventions set out by previous “life boat ethics” films. Boy, was I wrong.

What I got instead was a wholly original postmodern horror tale that takes the conventions of a morality fable and repackages them to be less about psychology and more about shock and awe. In this case, spectacle is not part of the narrative. It is the narrative.

Defining the elements of postmodern horror is a notoriously difficult undertaking. Two perspectives useful in appreciating the ways in which The Belko Experiment uses aesthetical violence to redefine its sub-genre conventions are Isabel Pinedo’s claim that postmodern horror is specifically aligned with low-brow and mass culture[ii] and Tonia Modleski’s assertion that postmodern horror is marked by a distinct lack of narrative closure.[iii] Each provides a loose framework for understanding why it is that this violence hits in a way not often experienced in other horror films, even for someone like me who thought myself immune from the impact of cinematic gore.

Familiar faces, such as Michael Rooke (The Walking Dead) create immediate empathy.

The association of horror with low brow entertainment is nothing new. Like television, horror has an unfair reputation for pandering to its audience via a reliance on acknowledged tropes. Director James Gunn uses that association and milks it for everything it’s worth. That the cast is comprised of the familiar faces of television character actors is by design. The audience’s instant familiarity with Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead), Sean Gunn (The Gilmore Girls) and John C. McGinley (Scrubs), for example, is leveraged in the film to create an immediate sense of familiarity and emotional connection. It also signals to the audience that this is likely a popcorn flick not to be confused with high art as evidenced by its lack of an acknowledged superstar within the cast. Because these faces have been in our homes for years, we are more invested in their plight which, in turn, creates a heightened sense of tension that the film exploits from the very first frame.

The execution scene is operatic in its style and use of music.

The Belko Experiment offers up an introductory kill sequence that immediately draws comparisons to Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). Its non-stop brutality in which heads literally explode from the inside out is captured in intimate detail and quickly positions the film as one in which spectacle will be leveraged to jolt the audience away from any preconceived notions about what it is the film will be offering up. The audience is treated to an onslaught of carnage that on the surface appears to be the very definition of low brow. But the spectacle is couched in explicitly avant-garde terms.  For instance, in the scene in which employees are executed at point blank range, the camera lingers not on the faces of those about to die but in the artful array of blood splatters comprising the carnage. Even the music that accompanies this scene- California Dreamin’– initially could be read as low brow until you consider that its Latin version sung by Gabriela Teran positions the song into a more foreign and elevated standing more akin to opera.  It’s a moment that could just as easily be a part of a Scorsese film as it could be a standard horror film. The film effectively transgresses not only perceived cultural boundaries but also acknowledged horror tropes in a way that isn’t direct but just left of center. And that’s the ultimate genius of the film.

Dany is positioned to be the survivor.

The narrative journey of Dany (Melanie Diaz) is the perfect case in point. She arrives for her first day at work at Belko Corp. and it is in her interview with HR that we first learn that employees have tracking devices surgically implanted in their skulls presumably as part of a security protocol. Once the company is locked down and the group dynamics begin to devolve into a bloody game of survival of the fittest, Dany is largely able to avoid detection. Being unknown to most of the employees, coupled with an instinct to hide immediately once the threat is revealed, protects her from most of the immediate carnage. Once she can no longer hide, Dany survives by being one step ahead of most of the characters. She is positioned as, perhaps not a Final Girl, but certainly a character likely to survive the film. This position is reaffirmed in a scene in which she descends from the top of an elevator shaft barefoot. Instantly evocative of Die Hard in which Bruce Willis’ character performs the same stunt sans shoes, the moment allows the audience to expel the breath we’ve been holding because we recognize all the trappings that make this moment a hero’s journey. Yet, that moment of reprieve from the tension quickly gives way to Dany’s being summarily shot in the head, thus ending her potential hero status as quickly as it began.

Otherness, too, receives an update in Gunn’s universe. We learn quickly that the company is located in Bogota, Colombia, and that the workforce is comprised largely of locals and Americans. On the surface, The Belko Experiment appears ready to take a page from the Hostel series in which the atrocities that occur are situated far away from the reality of everyday, American life. But location becomes a moot point when you consider that the participants of this “game” are overwhelmingly American and that survival becomes a bloody homage to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ so codified in American culture. There is nothing “other” about these characters. They could be the person who sits next to your desk at work. They could be you.

Those carrying out the carnage look exactly like the people sitting across from you at work.

The film’s conclusion reiterates this point when the voice that has been issuing the murderous directives is revealed to be a social scientist who espouses the value of using live test subjects. He reads as distinctly American, or at least North American, and there is absolutely nothing atypical about him save for a facial scar. His death and Mike’s (John Gallagher Jr.) seemingly lone survival fulfills Modleski’s tenet of an open narrative when it is revealed that this is a game being played across the globe. There is no closure and ultimately, no catharsis for the audience.

The Belko Experiment is not a perfect film by any means. But it is an impactful one. The violence, unrelenting and explicit, coupled with a calculated objective to upend horror topes, creates such a sense of unbalance that the emotional fallout lingers well after the closing credits.

[i] Refers to Garrett Hardin’s “life boat” scenario in which 50 people are aboard a lie boat with room for 10 more people. The dilemma then becomes how to decide who to award those 10 slots to out of a potential 100 people in need.

[ii] Pinedo, Isabel. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video 48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996).

[iii] Modleski, Tania. “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory.” Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

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