Catching Up With The Films of 2022: White Elephant (dir by Jesse V. Johnson)


White Elephant is not that bad.  In fact, for a B-action movie it’s actually pretty good.  If nothing else, it featured one of Michael Rooker’s best performances.

It’s important to start out this review by making that clear because I think a lot of people are going to be tempted to judge this film based solely on the fact that this was one of the last films that Bruce Willis made before his family announced that he would be retiring from acting due to health reasons.  When the big story was published in the L.A. Times about Willis’s recent struggles and how those struggles led to him accepting countless roles in straight-to-video fare like American Siege, several people who worked on White Elephant were quoted, with many saying that Willis always did his best but that he was definitely not the Willis that they all remembered.  The film’s director, action maestro Jesse V. Johnson, publicly stated that he would not make another film with Willis because “the arrangement felt wrong” and that Willis deserved a better end to his career.

And it must be said that Bruce is obviously not himself in White Elephant.  As with many of his recent films, Bruce is cast as a villain in this piece.  He’s a crime lord named Arnold and he spends the majority of his time taking meetings and giving order to his underlings.  Eventually, he does pick up a gun and fire it but there’s very little of the cocky attitude and swaggering charisma that made Bruce Willis into a superstar.  He still has the physical presence to play a tough guy.  Bruce Willis still looks intimidating and the film uses him sparingly, never allowing us to spend too much time focusing on how different he seems from the Bruce Willis who starred in Die Hard and Pulp Fiction.  One never gets the feeling that Bruce is being deliberately exploited in White Elephant, that alone sets it above some of the other recent films that have featured Willis.  But, at the same time, Arnold is a fairly generic bad guy.

Fortunately, the majority of the film follows Michael Rooker in the role of a far more interesting criminal.  Rooker plays Gabe Tancredi, a former Marine turned hitman.  He’s about as ruthless as they come but he still has enough of a code of ethics that he realizes that he can’t kill a police officer named Vanessa (Olga Kurylenko), no matter how much Arnold wants her dead.  Ordered to kill her, Gabe instead protects her, which leads to Arnold sending all of his men after them.  It leads to several shootouts and explosions as Gabe puts his life at risk to finally do the right thing.

It’s a simple story but it’s told well.  Jesse V. Johnson started out as a stuntman and he clearly knows his way around an action scene and the final shootout in genuinely exciting.  The film is also helped by Michael Rooker, who brings a good deal of unexpected depth to the role of Gabe.  Even though Rooker obviously knew that White Elephant was a B-movie, he still refuses to phone in a single minute of his performance and, instead, he turns Gabe into a surprisingly complex killer.  Gabe’s relationships with his agent Glen (John Malkovich), his protegee Carlos (Vadhir Debrez), and Vanessa are all genuinely interesting.  I especially liked the early scenes between Rooker and Debrez, in which the two actors wonderfully play off of each other and we get the feeling Carlos is almost like a son to Gabe.  Of course, being genre savvy, we know that Carlos is eventually going to be assigned to take Gabe down but, because their friendship seemed so real, we find ourselves dreading that confrontation.  White Elephant is a B-movie but, much like last year’s Corrective Measures and Gasoline Alley, it’s a B-movie with a heart.

Film Review: Corrective Measures (dir by Sean O’Reilly)


Welcome to the future!

War is raging.  Food is scarce.  At the start of the film, a newscaster officially says farewell to Australia as it’s swallowed by the ocean.  Due to some sort of vaguely defined cosmic event, certain citizens have developed super powers.  Normally, you might think that would be a good thing.  Maybe someone can use their super strength to save Australia.  Instead, it’s led to a rise in supervillains.  People with names like The Conductor and the Lobe are terrorizing the world.  Fortunately (or not), a prison has been designed to hold all of these super villains.

Running that prison is Overseer Devlin (Michael Rooker).  Devlin is quick to correct anyone who calls him a warden.  That said, Devlin runs his prison with a firm and sometimes cruel hand.  All of the inmates are forced to wear a leg brace that neutralizes their powers.  They’re at Devlin’s mercy and Devlin knows it.  A sentence to San Tiburon prison is a life sentence, regardless of what the courts may say.  No one gets parole unless Devlin wants them too and Devlin’s not in the business of giving people freedom.

Corrective Measures follows four inmates in particular.  Diego Diaz (Brennan Meija) is an empath, a super power that will be of little help in a prison where empathy is seen as a weakness.  Gordon Tweedy (Tom Cavanagh) is also known as the Conductor because he can control electricity.  Payback (Dan Payne) is a self-styled vigilante who killed evildoers on the outside and who looks forward to killing more on the inside.  Finally, there’s the Lobe (Bruce Willis), who is the most feared supervillain of all.  The Lobe can control minds, but only if his leg brace is removed.  While the Warden prepares for his retirement and considers who among his staff he should name as a his replacement, the inmates simply try to survive from one day to the next.

Corrective Measures is an episodic film, with the focus continually shifting from one character to another.  When the film begins, Payback seems like he’s going to be the main character but then the focus shifts to Diego and The Conductor.  Towards the end of the film, the focus switches once again and it becomes about The Lobe and his schemes.  The one theme running through the entire film is the struggle to maintain one’s freedom and dignity in even the most difficult of circumstances.  Yes, Corrective Measures might be a low-budget super hero film and yes, it was based on a graphic novel but it’s also a mediation on what it means to be free in a society that persecutes anyone who is perceived as failing to conform.  That theme elevates the film, making it more than just a B-movie.  If Sam Fuller directed a comic book movie, it would probably look something like Corrective Measures.

The actors also do wonders with the material, with Michael Rooker giving an entertainingly evil performance as Warden Devlin and Tom Cavanagh turning The Conductor into a surprisingly poignant character.  That said, I imagine most people will be watching this film because it was one of the final films that Bruce Willis worked on before announcing his retirement from acting.  It is true that Willis does spend the majority of this film in his cell.  It’s rare that he’s ever actually seen in a shot with any of the other actors, leading me to suspect that Willis probably shot all of his scenes in a day or two.  Despite that, Willis is well-cast as The Lobe and there’s even a few scenes where he seems like the Willis of old, smirking at his opponents and dismissing them with a well-timed insult.  While it’s obvious that Willis was not in the best shape when he shot his scenes, Corrective Measures still feels like a better closing act than something like American Siege.

Corrective Measures is a far better film than I think anyone would have expected it to be.  It’s a celebration of freedom that understands why it’s worth celebrating.

Cliffhanger (1993, directed by Renny Harlin)


Sylvester Stallone is Gabe, a mountain climber who also works as a rescue ranger.  Michael Rooker is Hal, Gabe’s colleague and former best friend.  Hal blames Gabe for the death of his girlfriend, Sarah.  Gabe also blames himself and is planning on getting out of the rescue game.  But before Gabe can quit, he’s got one last mission to perform.  Qualen (John Lithgow) is a psychotic former spy who has masterminded a multi-million dollar robbery.  A plane crash leads to the loot getting scattered in the mountains.  Qualen takes Hal and Gabe prisoner and tries to force them to help him track down the money.

Cliffhanger was made during one of the slower periods of Stallone’s career.  He had temporarily retired the roles of both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo and, as an action star, he was being overshadowed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Stallone had tried to reinvent himself as a comedic actor, with the result being Stop!  Or My Mom Will Shoot!  The former Oscar nominee was now only winning Razzies and he was running the risk of becoming better known for his messy divorce from Brigitte Nielsen than for his recent films.  Things weren’t looking good for Stallone but, fortunately, the box office success of Cliffhanger revived his career.

Seen today, Cliffhanger holds up well as an undemanding but enjoyable action film.  It’s a very much a film of its time, complete with John Lithgow hamming it up as a British villain and Northern Exposure’s Janine Turner playing Stallone’s loyal, helicopter-owning girlfriend.  Stallone’s best films are the ones where he is willing to surrender his ego and he does that in Cliffhanger.  It may be a Stallone film but the best lines go to Michael Rooker and the true stars of the film are the mountains and the scenes of Stallone and Rooker trying to climb them.  With Cliffhanger, Stallone was smart enough to stay out of the way and just trust that the image of him dangling above the Rockies would bring in the audience.  It was a smart decision.  Though Cliffhanger is often overshadowed by Stallone’s other 1993 hit, Demolition Man, it’s still an entertaining film in its own right.

Cliffhanger was directed by Renny Harlin, the Finnish action specialist whose promising career would subsequently take a hit and never really recover from directing Cutthroat Island.  Mountain climbing and Renny Harlin just seem to go together and Cliffhanger is one of his better films.  Here’s hope that, just as Stallone has done many times in the past, Renny Harlin will eventually his comeback as a director.

Horror Film Review: The Dark Half (dir by George Romero)


It will always fascinate me that Stephen King, one of the most popular writers in the world and one of the legitimate masters of horror, also has one of the least inspiring accounts on twitter.

Seriously, he may be the most popular author in the world but he tweets like a retiree who has just discovered the internet.  Go over to his twitter account and you won’t find memorable descriptions of small town hypocrisy.  You won’t find scenes of shocking psychological insight.  You won’t find moments of unexpected but laugh-out-loud dark humor.  Instead, you’ll find a combination of dad jokes, boomer nostalgia, and an unseemly obsession with wishing death on any public figure who is to the right of Bernie Sanders.  It’s odd because no one can deny that King’s a good storyteller.  At his best, Stephen King is responsible for some of the best horror novels ever written.  Everyone who is a horror fan owes him a debt of gratitude for the work that he’s done promoting the genre.  At his worst, he’s your uncle who retweets the article without reading it first.

Of course, someone can be great at one thing an terrible at something else.  I can dance but I certainly can’t sing.  Stephen King can write a best seller but a good tweet is beyond him.  That’s the dual nature of existence, I suppose.  That’s certainly one of the themes at the heart of both Stephen King’s The Dark Half and the subsequent film adaptation from George Romero.

Filmed in 1990 but not released for three years due to the bankruptcy of the studio that produced it, The Dark Half tells the story of Thad Beaumont and George Stark (both played by Timothy Hutton).  Thad is a professor who writes “serious” literature under his real name and violent, pulpy fiction under the name of George Stark.  No one reads Thad’s books but they love George Stark and his stories about the master criminal and assassin, Alexis Machine.  (Alexis Machine?  George Stark may be a good writer but he sucks at coming up with names.)  After a demented fan (played, with creepy intensity, by Robert Joy) attempts to blackmail him by threatening to reveal that he’s George Stark, Thad decides to go public on his own.  His agent even arranges for a fake funeral so that Thad can bury George once and for all.

Soon, however, Thad’s associates are turning up dead.  It seems as if everyone associated with the funeral is now being targeted.  Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) suspects that Thad is the murderer.  However, the murderer is actually George Stark, who has come to life and is seeking revenge.  Of course, George has more problems than just being buried.  His body is decaying and he’s got a bunch of angry sparrows after him.  The Sparrows Are Flying Again, we’re told over and over.  Seeking to cure his affliction and to get those birds to leave him alone, Stark targets Thad’s wife (Amy Madigan) and their children.

The Dark Half has its moments, as I think we would expect of any film based on a Stephen King novel and directed by George Stark.  Some of the deaths are memorably nasty.  Hutton is believably neurotic as Thad and cartoonishly evil as Stark and, in both cases, it works well.  Rooker may be an unconventional pick for the role but he does a good job as Pangborn and Amy Madigan brings some unexpected energy to the thankless role of being the threatened wife.

But, in the end, The Dark Half never really seems to live up to its potential.  In the book, Thad was a recovering alcoholic and it was obvious that George Stark was a metaphor for Thad’s addiction.  That element is largely abandoned in the movie and, as a result, George goes from being the literal representation of Thad’s demons to just being another overly loquacious movie serial killer.  Despite having a few creepy scenes, the film itself is never as disturbing as it should be.  For all the blood, the horror still feels a bit watered down.  Take away the sparrows and this could just as easily be a straight-forward action film where the hero has to rescue his family from a smug kidnapper.  Comparing this film to Romero’s Martin is all the proof you need that Romero was best-served by working outside the mainstream than by trying to be a part of it.

Add to that, I got sick of the sparrows.  Yes, both the film and the book explain why the sparrows are important but “The Sparrows Are Flying Again” almost sounds like something you’d find in something written in a deliberate attempt to parody King’s style.  It’s a phrase that’s intriguingly enigmatic the first time that you hear it, annoying the third time, and boring the fifth time.

The Dark Half was a bit of a disappointment but that’s okay.  For King fans, there will always be Carrie.  (I would probably watch The Shining but apparently, King still hasn’t forgiven Stanley Kubrick for improving on the novel.)  And, for us Romero fans, we’ll always have Night of the Living Dead, Martin, Dawn of the Dead, and the original Crazies.  And, for fans of George Stark, I’m sure someone else will pick up the story of Alexis Machine.  It’s hard to keep a good character down.

Love and Monsters (dir. by Michael Matthews)


love-and-monsters-movie-posterDylan O’Brien is one of those actors that I’ll run to watch anything they’re in. I did so for 2017’s American Assassin, and have been making my way through MTV’s Teen Wolf. The guy oozes charisma, so when I found out his latest film, Love and Monsters, was available both in theatres and on Demand, I scooped it up without blinking.  It’s kind of ironic that both he and his Teen Wolf co star, Tyler Posey, both have films this month (Posey is in Alone, also on demand) where their characters are caught up in apocalyptic nightmares.

Love and Monsters is a lighthearted monster film about stepping out of one’s shell, making some mistakes and growing along the way. O’Brien carries the film with humor and action, along with help from the supporting cast.  It’s still a monster story, but it’s one just about anyone but the youngest of viewers can watch (and even then, it should be okay).

Sometimes, you just have to come out of your shell, which really isn’t easy to do when the world is suddenly populated with giant creatures. Joel (Dylan O’Brien, American Assassin) loves Aimee (Jessica Henwick , Underwater), but they happen to be separated in underground colonies about 90 miles from each other. Everyone manages to survive in their own way, and going up to the surface is particularly dangerous when everything wants to eat you.  Joel does the small work around the underground bunker he’s in – making Minestrone, cleaning up the place – because he can’t handle the monsters outside.. When Joel decides to make the trek to reach Aimee, he has to learn how to survive in a world where everything wants to eat you. Befriended by a dog, Joel meets some friends along the way. Love and Monsters is a near perfect fit for the post Quarantine world. It speaks of isolation, communication over distances, while still hitting some themes on taking some risks (calculated, when possible), and learning to trust one’s instincts.

Love-and-Monsters-Boy and his Dog

Joel (Dylan O’Brien) and Boy (Hero the Dog) navigate the unknown in Love and Monsters. 

The cast for Love and Monsters is so nice. In addition to O’Brien and Henwick, we have a pair of Marvel Alumni in Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy), and Ariana Greenblatt (Little Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War) as Clyde and Minnow, respectively. They help to add to the comedy that O’Brien’s already offering.

I think what surprised me the most about Love and Monsters was the look of the monsters themselves. I was expecting something more along the lines of your typical Syfy channel movie fare. The CGI and monster effects in Love and Monsters are pretty good. I would have liked to have seen more monsters, but I really enjoyed it what was offered. Marco Beltrami and Marcus Trumpp also get some kudos for the soundtrack, having worked with Wes Craven and Guillermo Del Toro in the past. The theme for Love and Monsters has a pinch of Hellboy to it, and fits well to Joel and Boy’s (Hero the Dog) adventures.

If there are any problems with the film, I guess it would be that it moves a little faster than anticipated. That’s hardly a complaint. At about an hour and 50 minutes, it moves somewhat fast. Additionally, if anyone’s expecting a full fledged horror film, they might be a bit disappointed. It’s a comedy first, with monsters. As long as you’re not expecting serious horror, it’s great, but the film does have it’s moments of little jumpscares. There’s also the notion that if you’ve already watched How to Train Your Dragon or Zombieland, Love and Monsters might not feel entirely new. It does, however, manage to take what’s going in the world right now with social distancing and reference it without directly saying it has anything to do with it. I feel audiences might relate to Joel’s isolation from that aspect, and his journey based on any trial we’ve ever gone through in learning a new skill or stepping outside of our comfort zones.

Love and Monsters is a cute surprise of a film that might have you chuckling more than jumping around in your seat, but that’s okay. At least it’s entertaining. I really wouldn’t mind a sequel to this.

Horror Film Review: Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island (dir by Jeff Wadlow)


Welcome to Fantasy Island, where your fantasies come true….

Well, some of them do.  Some of them don’t.  Some of them play out ironically and some of them play out literally.  How does the island work?  Who knows?  It seems to be kind of random.  Mr. Rourke (Michael Pena) is your host and he’s got a tragic backstory of his own.  Is he a friend or an enemy?  Is he an angel or is he a devil?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The film doesn’t.

My point here is that Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island does not make much sense.  It’s about a group of people who go to Fantasy Island and each get their own individual fantasy from Mr. Rourke.  Apparently, all you have to do to get a fantasy is fill out a one-page questionnaire and have a conversation with Mr. Rourke.  It sounds like it should be fun but sometimes, people die!

Gwen Olsen (Maggie Q) visits the island so that the love of her life will propose to her and then they can get married and have a child.  Gwen’s lover, Nick (Evan Evagora), died in a fire years ago but suddenly, he’s alive and he’s proposing!  But is a fantasy family the same as a real family?

Melanie Cole (Lucy Hale) wants revenge on a girl who tormented her in junior high but is torturing Sloane (Portia Doubleday) really worth giving up her humanity and working with the fearsome Dr. Torture (Ian Roberts)?  Seriously, the dude’s name is really Dr. Torture.

Patrick Sullivan (Austin Stowell) is a policeman who wants to serve in the army, like his father did.  Patrick’s fantasy leads to him being forced to wander around in the jungle until he gets taken prisoner by a bunch of soldiers, one of whom is his father (Mike Vogel)!  Considering his father is dead, Patrick is initially shocked but then a few minutes later, Patrick’s like, “Cool, whatever”

J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) are brothers who want to “have it all!”  That’s their fantasy.  For them, having it all means a big mansion, sexy models, and a nonstop pool party.  But what if having it all also means getting hunted by a drug cartel led by Devil Face (Kim Coates) and …. wait a minute.  That doesn’t make any sense at all.  If their fantasy was, “I want to be a super rich like Scarface or Escobar,” maybe it would then make sense for a drug cartel to show up but how does “having it all” lead to Kim Coates running around with a machine gun?

Anyway, needless to say, everyone’s fantasy goes differently than how they were expecting.  Eventually, all the fantasies connect because everyone has a Final Destination-style connection.  For some reason, this leads to everyone ending up in an underground cavern, where they’re chased by random killers.  I’m not sure why, to be honest.

Usually, I love incoherent movies but Fantasy Island was just annoying.  The main problem is that the fantasies were all just ripped off from other, better movies.  For instance, Melanie’s fantasy was basically just a sequel to Saw.  J.D. and Brax were in a cheap, Hulu action comedy.  Patrick and Gwen’s fantasies felt as if they were lifted from one of those religious films where someone prays and gets a chance to visit with their dead loved ones.

Now, at this point, I should say that Fantasy Island is based on an old TV show where, every week, different guest stars would visit the island and they would have a fantasy and, I assume, learn a lesson.  I’ve only seen a few episodes of the show but my impression is that the island was always portrayed as being a benevolent force.  People didn’t come to the island and say, “I want this experience” and then end up getting shot in the head.  I imagine that explained why the Island was able to remain open and popular.  In the movie, though, the Island leads to several deaths and you have to wonder why that wouldn’t hurt business.  I mean, if I survived a trip to the movie’s Fantasy Island, I’d probably call my senators and demand that the island by nuked into oblivion.  Both of my senators are Republicans so you know they’d be willing to do it, too.

Anyway, my fantasy was for Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island to be shorter than it was because the movie’s about 30 minutes too long and not really interesting enough to hold your attention during the slow spots.  Unfortunately, my fantasy did not come true.

Here’s The Trailer For Love And Monsters!


It’s a monster apocalypse and only Dylan O’Brien can save us!

Listen, I don’t know if the film’s going to be any good or not but we should all be happy that Dylan O’Brien is still with us.  After he was seriously injured during the filming of the the last Maze Runner film, a lot of people thought that he might never return to films.

As for this film, Michael Rooker’s in it and that’s often a good sign.  It looks like it might be fun.  We’ll find out for sure on October 16th!

The Trigger Effect (1996, directed by David Koepp)


Annie (Elisabeth Shue) and Matthew (Kyle MacLachlan) are a married couple with an infant daughter and a macho best friend named Joe (Dermot Mulroney).  When a suddenly blackout throws the city into chaos, Matthew and Annie can only watch as the world seems to go mad all around them.  Matthew quickly goes from being mild and straight-laced to stealing medicine from the local pharmacy and purchasing a shotgun with Joe.  When a potential burglar is killed by one of their neighbors, Annie, Matthew, and Joe decides that it’s time to get out of town and head up to Annie’s parents’ house.  Things do not go as planned as one of the three ends up seriously wounded and the members of the group have to decide how far they’ll go to survive.

The Trigger Effect has an interesting premise and raises some relevant questions about how far people will go to protect themselves in a crisis.  Unfortunately, the execution is almost totally botched.  Shue, MacLahclan, and Mulroney are all good actors but none of their characters are that interesting and an attempt to insert some sexual tension between Annie and Joe just feels like a cheap cliche.  Since the movie doesn’t make it clear who these three were before the blackout, it’s hard to be effected by what they do after the lights go out.

Michael Rooker has a cameo at the start of the film’s third act.  It involves him yelling and, because it’s a big dramatic moment, you won’t want to laugh but it’s hard not to because his rant just goes on for so long.  In that one moment, whatever reality has been created by the film goes straight out the window.  It all leads to a predictable ending that feels like it was taken from the Giant Book of Hollywood Cliches.  That’s a good book if you can find a copy.

This was David Koepp’s directorial debut and it has the weaknesses that you would expect to find in a first film.  Koepp’s second film, Stir of Echoes, would be a marked improvement.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Deceiver (dir by Jonas Pate and Josh Pate)


I have long contended that the most annoying serial killer of all time was Paul Michael Stephani, a resident of Minneapolis who killed three women in 1980.

Stephani was known as The Weepy-Voiced Killer.  (Even his nickname was annoying.)  Whenever Stephani committed a murder, he would promptly call 911 and confess while sobbing.  As you might expect would happen to someone who was enough of a dumbass to call the police right after murdering someone, Stephani was eventually captured and convicted.  Sentenced to 40 years, Stephani died of cancer while in prison and nobody misses him.

Unfortunately, because all of Stephani’s 911 calls were recorded, he’s recently become a very popular subject for true crime shows.  It’s not there’s anything particularly interesting about Stephani’s crimes.  It’s just that it’s easy (and cheap) to build a show around the sound of him whining on the phone.  As someone who probably spends too much time watching true crime realty television, I’ve had to listen to Stephani’s voice more than anyone should ever have to.  Making it even worse, there’s currently a show called Evil Calls, which uses a recording of Stephani in its commercials.  I’ve actually stopped watching Investigation Discovery just because I’ve gotten so sick of hearing that loser whining, “Please don’t talk, just listen… I’m sorry I killed that girl. I stabbed her 40 times…”

However, the Stephani tapes do provide one valuable service.  The sound of Stephani’s pathetic voice reminds us that most serial killers are not the urbanely witty and intelligent figures that we’ve gotten used to seeing in the movies.  Most real-life killers are whiny losers who kill for very basic reasons and who are stupid enough to call 911 and confess.  Movie killers are a different breed all together.

Take the 1997 mystery Deceiver, for instance.

In Deceiver, Renee Zellweger plays a world weary prostitute.  We only see her in flashbacks, largely because she was murdered before the film’s opening scene.  Her name was Elizabeth, which brings to mind Elizabeth Short, the legendary Los Angeles murder victim who is better known as the Black Dahlia.  Much like the real-life Black Dahlia, Elizabeth’s body was cut into two pieces and left in a park.  (According to the film’s imdb trivia section, Elizabeth was also named after Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who pioneered the study of false memories.)

Suspicion immediately falls on James Walter Wayland (Tim Roth).  The youngest son of a wealthy and powerful South Carolina family, Wayland is an infamous alcoholic.  Wayland admits that he knew Elizabeth.  He even took Elizabeth with him to a fancy party, all the better to offend his parents.  Wayland may be a black-out drunk with a history of erratic behavior but he also swears that he didn’t kill Elizabeth.

Two detectives are determined to trick Wayland into confessing.  Detective Edward Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) is a respected veteran, the type of detective who can get a confession out of almost anyone.  His partner is Detective Philip Braxton (Chris Penn), who is a bit less impressive.  As we’re informed early in the film, Braxton graduated at the bottom of his high school class and has been waiting for a promotion for quite some time.

From the minute that Kennesaw and Braxton start to interrogate Wayland, it becomes obvious that Wayland is hardly your typical murder suspect.  He’s certainly more impressive than the Weepy-Voiced Killer.  He’s witty.  He’s smart.  He’s cocky.  He admits to being an alcoholic and to suffering from black outs and seizures but he also claims that, unlike every other man who Elizabeth dealt with, he actually cared about her.  Wayland also reveals that he knows some details about Kennesaw and Braxton.  He knows about Kennesaw’s troubled marriage to a woman (Rosanna Arquette) who has a history of cheating on him.  He knows that Braxton is in debt to a local bookie (Ellen Burstyn).  And, as the interrogation continues, Wayland starts to suggest that one of the interrogators is hiding an even darker secret.

Deceiver‘s a frequently fascinating film to watch, even if it’s not always easy to follow.  If there’s any film that would seem to demand multiple viewings, it’s this one.  The majority of the movie takes place in one darkened room and directors Joan and Josh Pate do a wonderful job capturing the claustrophobia of that setting.  (Fortunately, there’s enough flashbacks to keep the film from getting too stagey.)  Roth, Rooker, and Penn all give intensely stylized performances.  They may not feel realistic but they fit in perfectly with the fever dream atmosphere of the film.  Roth, in particular, gives a performance that is both mannered and intriguing.  It even feel appropriate that his Southern accent is in no way convincing.  It just makes sense that Wayland wouldn’t sound like anyone else in the world.

It’s a heavily stylized film, full of odd dialogue and skewed camera angles.  It’s a film that often feels like a journey right to the center of an extremely twisted mind.  (Of course, the movie is designed so that you’re never quite sure whose mind you’ve entered.)  There’s nothing realistic about it but that’s okay.  It’s certainly preferable to watching a movie about The Weepy-Voiced Killer.

Horror Film Review: The Belko Experiment (dir by Greg McLean)


How far would you go if all you had to do was follow orders?  That is the question posed by The Belko Experiment.

A violent and disturbingly plausible social satire/horror film, The Belko Experiment was released into theaters on March 17th.  It was one of the best films of the first half of 2017 but, as so often happens whenever a genre film subverts the traditional narrative, The Belko Experiment is also one of the most overlooked films of 2017.  It got mixed reviews, with most critics focusing on the fact that the script was written by James Gunn.  (Though Gunn may be best known for directing Guardians of the Galaxy, his non-MCU work has always  been distinguished by a subversive, often transgressive sensibility.)  A few critics dismissed it as being just another lurid celebration of violence, showing once again that you can always count on certain mainstream critics to unfairly categorize any film that doesn’t neatly fit into their preconceptions.  Yes, The Belko Experiment is violent.  And yes, it is gory and sometimes hard to watch.  However, to dismiss The Belko Experiment as merely being that latest entry in the torture porn genre is to totally miss the point.

Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) is one of the many employees of Belko Industries.  He’s a nice enough guy.  In fact, if I worked for Belko Industries, Mike would probably be one of my favorite co-workers.  He’s friendly.  He’s funny.  He’s not unattractive.  He’s kind of a less smirky version of The Office‘s Jim Halpert.  I’d want to be his friend.  Since Belko’s offices are located in a remote area of Colombia, I would want to make all the friends that I could.

(Early on in the film, we’re informed that every employee of Belko Industries has been required to get a tracking device implanted at the base of their skull.  They’re told that this is because there’s always the risk that one of them will be kidnapped by drug traffickers.  Of course, as the film plays out, we discover that it’s actually for a totally different reason.)

When The Belko Experiment begins, it’s a day like any other.  People show up for work. Some people actually do work.  Some people slack off.  Everyone tries to look busy whenever the boss, Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), wanders by.  The maintenance workers (Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian) do their thing.  A few employees sneak up to the roof of the office building and get high.  Everyone tries to avoid Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinely), a pervy executive.  The security guard (James Earl) watches the door.  The newest employee (Melonie Diaz) learns about her new job and coworkers.

Of course, there are a few strange things.  Some new security guards have shown up and they don’t appear to be particularly friendly.  They turn away all of the locals who work at the office, only allowing in the American employees.  Everyone agrees that it’s strange but, instead of thinking about it too much, they just keep going about their day.

Then, the steel shutters slam down, effectively sealing the building off.

Then a voice (Gregg Henry) demands that they select two co-workers to die.  When the employees of Belko Industries refuse (with several dismissing the whole thing as being a tasteless prank), tracking devices start to randomly explode until four employees are dead.  The voice goes on to say that, unless 30 employees are killed in the next two hours, 60 people will be randomly killed…

Some of the co-workers refuse to kill their friends but many more do not.  And soon, even those who refused to take part in the murders, are forced to start killing just to keep from being killed themselves…

The Belko Experiment wastes no time in establishing that anyone can die at any moment.  It doesn’t matter how funny you were a few seconds ago or how likable you may be.  If the unseen voice decides to flip your switch, that “tracking device” will explode and it’ll take your head with it.  And, even if the unseen voice doesn’t get you, your coworkers might.

That, by itself, would be disturbing enough.  However, The Belko Experiment ultimately succeeds as a work of horror because it illustrates a truth that many people would prefer to ignore.  When the employees of Belko Industries start to kill each other, it feels all too plausible.  Culturally, human beings are conditioned to follow orders.  We like to have an authoritarian around to tell us what to do.  It’s a good way of avoiding responsibility for our own actions.  (“I was following orders.”  “I was following protocol.”  “I’m just doing my job.”)  As The Belko Experiment demonstrates, most people would never dream of hurting someone else … unless they were ordered to do so.  The characters in The Belko Experiment start the movie as individuals but, as the experiment unfolds, all quirks and differences vanish.  All that is left are drones who slavishly do what they’re told.

Making the nightmare scenario feel all the more believable is a large and strong cast of familiar faces.  As the closest thing that this film has to a hero, John Gallagher, Jr. is likable and you find yourself hoping that he’ll somehow manage to survive all of this with his humanity intact.  Tony Goldwyn brings some interesting shades to his role while John C. McGinley is memorably creepy as Wendell.  Micheal Rooker, Abraham Benrubi, Sean Gunn, Josh Brener, Melonie Diaz, Brent Sexton, and Adria Arjone all shine in smaller roles.  To be honest, you really don’t want to see any of these people suffer, which makes their inevitable fate all the more disturbing.

The Belko Experiment is ultimately a portrait of how easily people can be persuaded (or ordered) to surrender their humanity.  It’s the exact mentality that we currently see everyday, with people willingly becoming slaves to one ideology or another and then tossing around terms like “treason” whenever anyone dares to do something other than obey.  It’s the exact mentality that leads to people accusing you of being “selfish” when you refuse to surrender your right to self-determination.  Our real-life Belko Experiment has been going on for several years now and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.  This movie is frightening because it’s real.