The whopping success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out has demonstrated that general audiences can appreciate horror movies for their subtext. A thinly veiled commentary on American race relations, Get Out uses the horror genre to dramatize fears about the persecution of African-Americans and the suppression of black identity. Audiences seem to get this (given the film’s courageous forthrightness, it would be surprising if they didn’t), as evidenced by the serious discussions of race that the film has provoked across media and social media alike. In its subversion of genre and its effectiveness as provocation, Get Out feels like a truer heir to Bill Gunn’s great Ganja and Hess (1973) than Spike Lee’s overly reverent remake Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) did. The difference, perhaps, is that Lee regarded horror primarily as a vehicle to pay tribute to Gunn, whereas Peele respects the genre and uses it to address contemporary anxieties.
Another difference may be that Lee made Jesus entirely independently (he produced it through crowd-funding) while Peele worked with producer Jason Blum, one of the most valuable forces in American genre cinema today. In the past several years, Blum’s company Blumhouse Productions has fostered a steady supply of smart, subtext-rich horror films that speak to the dark side of the American experience. (The studio has also produced its share of junk, but at least none of it has been intentionally kitschy or gory for the sake of being gory.) James DeMonaco’s brilliant Purge series remains the company’s finest output, though Blumhouse is also responsible for such notable provocations as Sinister, Oculus, Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, Unfriended, and the current release The Belko Experiment. Although overshadowed by Get Out, Belko is one of the studio’s finest films and as worthy a piece of social commentary as Peele’s.
Directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, The Darkness) from a script by James Gunn (Slither, Guardians of the Galaxy), the film is as plainspoken in its critique of corporate America as Get Out is in its critique of racism. It takes place at an office building in Bogota, Colombia, where a bunch of North American transplants work to assist U.S. corporations in making inroads into South American markets. One morning a strange voice comes out of the office intercom and tells the employees that they must kill each other until only one person is left alive. The rest of the film concerns the grisly fight to the finish, as the employees of Belko Industries, realizing they have no way out of the building and that they’ll be killed if they fail to comply with orders, devolve into predators and prey.
One can detect the film’s anticorporate slant from its premise. Corporations, which exist to make profits, are not concerned with people and regard their employees as expendable. Despite efforts to promote political correctness and “team building,” corporate workplaces are no more than collections of isolated individuals—they’re there simply to make money for the corporation. The Belko experiment of pitting employees against each other in mortal combat suggests a sick exaggeration of corporate downsizing efforts (the very term “downsizing”—a heartless euphemism for mass layoffs—reflecting a blatant disregard for human beings), if not the corporate ethos in general.
For their part, the filmmakers communicate infectious sympathy for the victims of the experiment. The opening scenes, which introduce the office setting and most of the major characters, establish the drudgery of the workplace as well as the employees’ efforts to overcome it. Everyone displays flashes of individuality within the corporate culture, making jokes (few of them are actually funny, but then, the corporate environment doesn’t really give one room to cut loose) and behaving benignly. It helps that the cast contains a bevy of fine character actors—among them Melonie Diaz, Michael Rooker, John C. McGinley, Rusty Schwimmer, and David Dastmalchian—who instinctively add personality to their generally underwritten roles. The cast doesn’t overstate any sense of camaraderie, however. It’s clear that the relationships between employees aren’t friendships so much as alliances against the common enemy of boredom.
The experiment is meant to test the strength of these alliances, and they prove to be rather strong indeed. The Belko Experiment is most compelling in its first half, which shows the employees working together to thwart the malicious design of their overseers. (That’s not to say the film becomes any less interesting once the mayhem begins—it just becomes more formulaic.) Gunn, McLean, and the cast want to show that most of these office drones are essentially good, and the characters’ inventiveness in responding to their situation demonstrates that goodness. For all the movie’s gory anticorporate outrage, The Belko Experiment is surprisingly uncynical in its view of human nature. Notably the film’s hero is no take-charge fighter, but rather a sweet-tempered humanist. The character of Mike Melch expresses the filmmakers’ ethic of community over individualism and kindness over ruthlessness. Played by John Gallagher Jr. as misplaced hipster (his messy hair, three-day stubble, and soft line readings suggest an indie-rock musician adrift in the corporate world), Mike is a fitting antithesis to the social climbers who show little compunction about murdering their coworkers. Gallagher’s endearing performance anchors the film—he deserves more leading roles like this.
Incidentally Gallagher’s star turn isn’t the only superb central performance you can see in a horror movie this week. Julia Ducournau’s Raw, currently playing at the Music Box, is as much a showcase for the young French actress Garance Marillier as it is an arty fright fest. Marillier’s character evolves from a doelike waif to a ravenous cannibal, and she makes this evolution feel natural. That character, Justine, is a freshman at a Belgian veterinary school who, in the midst of hazing and the stresses of academic life, suddenly finds herself craving the taste of blood. Along with this change, Justine begins engaging in rebellious behavior, becoming a stranger to herself. Ducournau, directing her own script, presents the character’s transformation as something like a biological aberration, the change emerging from within rather than inspired from without. (Not surprisingly, one of Raw‘s champions is David Cronenberg.)
Unlike Get Out or The Belko Experiment, Raw is deliberately elusive in its subtext. Is Justine’s cannibalism a metaphor for the growing pains that sometimes accompany a girl’s transition to young womanhood? Does it represent the selfish urges that we’re all taught to repress as we transform into responsible adults? Or is the film simply an abstract nightmare? Ducournau’s style often seems to exist for its own sake, trading in commanding long shots and color combinations that conjure up a potent atmosphere that’s more easily felt than understood. Raw is being marketed as an art film whereas The Belko Experiment is being sold as a genre exercise—it’s also getting better reviews—but I’d argue that the ostensible genre exercise has more to say about the world we live in than Durcournau’s admittedly original feat.