"The Belko Experiment" Gets The Bloody Job Done

The number of films, novels, and pop culture touchstones from which horror-thriller “The Belko Experiment” cribs requires double digits; it’s a list long enough to fill out an entire review. But for its appreciable nods to “The Cabin In The Woods,” “Office Space,” and both the “Saw” and “Purge” series, the movie is probably best distilled as the Stanford prison experiment (a famously nasty psychological trial itself made into a film in 2015) on amphetamines; a disturbing look at the evil human beings are capable of, only frenzied instead of measured – and soaked in blood.

Penned by “Guardians Of The Galaxy” mastermind James Gunn, “Belko” is firmly rooted in the filmmaker’s exploitation roots. (He got his start in the 1990s with notorious B-movie outfit Troma Entertainment.) As such, the film’s general trashiness is much more in line with Gunn’s career trajectory than the feel-good “Guardians” was. Mainstream audiences beware.

The corporate horror pic sees eighty employees of a dubious company named Belko Industries unceremoniously locked inside their Bogotá, Colombia office building and forced to fight to the death. A sinister voice informs them via intercom of various body count markers that must be met within certain time frames, lest even more people die.

Worst lock-in ever.

None of Gunn’s exclusively white-collar characters, led by average guy Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), are especially well drawn, leaving their inevitable factions of good and evil to arise predictably. Belko COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) and a ghoulish executive named Wendell (John C. McGinley) prove middling foils for Mike as he and his co-worker and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) try to survive. Luckily, there’s good fun to be had with new employee Dany (Melonie Diaz). Diaz somehow steals the film with almost no dialogue, bringing some much needed humanity – and a couple of big laughs – to the proceedings.

Although the characters are a mostly unmemorable bunch, Gunn’s knack for mayhem and director Greg McLean’s blunt force direction make for a significant one-two punch, one that’s enough to accomplish what the movie sets out to do: Give viewers alternating adrenaline spikes and darkly sourced laughs. The violence isn’t as weighty as it should be, but it means something, and it’s carried out with energy and panache. When one particular character gets his just desserts, the moment’s incredible mixture of practical and digital effects is sure to evoke fist pumps from genre fans.

Gunn’s screenplay might not be as thematically or psychologically rich as it might have been, nor his players as compelling, but the pic’s eagerness to unlock something primordial in horror nuts is undeniable. In all its blood-spattered glory, this one is proudly for Gunn, by Gunn, a passion project that strikes an often startling balance between real and unreal, tomfoolery and terror. It’s no masterwork, but his ride-or-die fans would be remiss to miss this freakish fruit of his Marvel Studios labor.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017
Studio: Orion Pictures, BH Tilt
Director: Greg McLean
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Melonie Diaz, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Michael Rooker, David Dastmalchian, Josh Brener
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use)