THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence throughout, Language including Sexual References, and some Drug Use

Directed by: Greg McLean

Written by: James Gunn

Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker & Gregg Henry

Work sucks. You probably deal with stupid people on a daily basis and suffer small indignities that pile on unnecessary stress, but things could be a hell of a lot worse. How, you might ask? Well, have you ever had to dodge bullets in your office while using a paper trimmer as an improvised weapon? No? Things don’t seem quite as bad now, do they? THE BELKO EXPERIMENT has this exact scenario play out and turns an office building into a bloody battleground. Directed by Greg McLean (WOLF CREEK) and penned by James Gunn (SLITHER), this film is BATTLE ROYALE in an office building. Though it has flaws, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a lot of fun…if office drones slaughtering each other sounds like fun to you. To me, it certainly does and I enjoyed watching this flick.

Belko Industries is a large business that’s located in the middle of nowhere. It seems like a pretty nice place to work (big money, cushy jobs, company cars and paid-for apartments), but all of that changes in an instant. Without warning, a voice comes over the intercom and informs employees that they are now part of a twisted experiment. They must kill two people or face dire consequences. The workers laugh this announcement off as a bad joke, but unexpected metal security doors proceed block off all exits and windows. Still, they refuse to murder and then a few heads explode. The Belko employees will participate in this kill-or-be-killed exercise or their brains will be blown to kingdom come. Things begin to breakdown into thick tensions and bloody carnage as the voice on the intercom demands more bodies…

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT wears its influences on its sleeve. The biggest of these being, of course, BATTLE ROYALE. The script liberally borrows a few plot devices from that film to ensure that things get as bloody as they possibly can, which is a very good thing in a story like this. There’s also a quirky sense of humor as employees attempt to salvage normalcy and remain somewhat civilized in the face of this unthinkable scenario. The office setting, creative killing tools, and little mannerisms all naturally lend a goofy vibe to the proceedings, making a few disturbing scenarios into something downright comical. One of my favorite bits involves a particularly gruesome demise while the company’s promotional video plays in the background.

Despite having 80 employees in the building, Gunn’s script does a solid job of giving many of Belko’s workers time to shine in individual moments. There’s a sense that we’ve all met these people in one setting or another, which makes it even more interesting to watch as they start offing each other. The characters you’d expect to be psychos do become psychos, which could be seen as a problem in the plot’s predictability. Still, the ways that they become unhinged remain entertaining. The film isn’t constant carnage from the minute the killing starts, but begins with small bits of bloodshed and allows for a pressure-cooker of “what would you do?” suspense to build before bursting into an action-packed orgy of chaos. The slower bits and murdery moments deliver equal levels of intensity for entirely different reasons.

John Gallagher Jr. (who recently played a survivor in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE and a psycho-killer in HUSH) plays pacifist protagonist Mike. His constant rationalization of trying to save everybody makes a hero that the audience can root for, while some folks around him seem a little too eager to slaughter their coworkers. Adria Arjona is solid as Mike’s girlfriend and delivers two of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Tony Goldwyn shines as the murder-happy boss and John C. McGinley is great as the office creep (coming off like a psycho version of Milton from OFFICE SPACE). Other cast highlights include: Sean Gunn as a Shaggy-like stoner, Michael Rooker as the scruffy head of Maintenance, Melonie Diaz as an innocent new hire, and Rusty Schwimmer as a security guard. Most of the background characters are colorful enough to stick out too, making their murders and deaths seem like more than just a generic body count.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT was definitely influenced by other (better) films and is predictable to an extent, but neither of these things really damage the film’s fun. The entertainment factor is through the roof as we watch colorful office drones turn on each other and bite it in various ways. There’s also a sinister sense of humor, even though this isn’t exactly a laugh riot. The film lets its extreme situation naturally build, with effective pacing that puts the viewer in the shoes of these characters. There was a specific scene where I was rooting for one character to brutally kill another character. The film then allowed for a small breath of hesitation to let the audience realize that they had just been put into the same mindset of that character. There’s something special about a film that can accomplish that. If you’re a horror fan, then THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a gory good time!

Grade: B+

THE HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Stephen Kay

Written by: Tom Towler & Donald Martin

(based on the book NIGHTMARE IN WICHITA: THE HUNT FOR THE BTK STRANGLER by Robert Beattie)

Starring: Robert Forster, Gregg Henry, Michael Michele, Maury Chaykin & Mimi Kuzyk

From 1974 to 1991, Dennis Rader (known as the BTK Killer, Bind Torture Kill) terrorized the small community of Wichita, Kansas. With 10 victims under his belt, Rader wasn’t arrested until February 2005 thanks to a stunning turn of events and sheer dumb luck. The legal proceedings for the infamous BTK Killer concluded in June 2005. There were three months between Rader’s trial date and the premiere of this made-for-TV movie. When I see stuff like this I’m reminded of the scene from SE7EN in which Brad Pitt tells the psychotic John Doe, “You’re just a movie of the week!” Besides winding up in prison for life, Dennis Rader ultimately became fodder for a TV movie of the week and 2005’s HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER is that movie. How does it hold up as an accurate and well-made portrayal of Rader’s capture? Honestly, this is a bit of a mixed bag.

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The capture of the BTK Killer is ultimately a story of dumb luck and one officer who didn’t have many clues to monster’s identity. What triggered BTK’s “return” was a writer announcing a new book about the BTK cold case. After seeing that upcoming chronicle of his story, Rader’s mask of sanity slips as he obsesses over his old crimes and begins planning new ones. Thanks to BTK’s overwhelming ego, the police receive some evidence to suggest that this feared serial killer is still alive and well. Detective Jason Magida sets up a plan to bait BTK into making a revealing mistake. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse which results in the capture of Rader, who is now rotting in jail today. Being told from a court scene in the opening, HUNT FOR BTK is mainly made of flashbacks detailing reenactments of Magida’s search for Rader.

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Though it sets itself up in the most clichéd manner possible, this movie could have arguably been better if it were told in a chronological narrative instead of flashbacks accompanied with bad narration. Right away, things become totally apparent that this was a made-for-TV effort. Not made for HBO or Showtime (where the content restrictions are more open), but basic cable or (more likely) network television. In spite of the R rating that the film totes on its DVD release, things were cut back to keep it at a safe level. I don’t need or want to see Rader’s graphic crimes on-screen, but there are noticeable points where Robert Forster’s hardened cop says things like “I don’t know if we’re going to catch this frickin’ guy.” If you can’t swear in your movie, don’t add cheap substitute faux curse words. Just write the dialogue without any space for profanity to be had. At least, that way it’s less distracting. Forster isn’t compelling in the role of Detective Magida as the real reason (the film showcases this in a backhanded way) that Rader managed to get arrested was through a stupid mistake on his part and luck on the cop’s side. The film doesn’t exactly sport the most compelling true story behind it and the production values are very cheap.

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HUNT FOR BTK sinks all possible suspense with a manipulative soundtrack. The same few pieces of music are played over and over. To the film’s credit, one piece of music is decent, but we have to sit through it six times before the film is over. This movie tries way too hard to force emotions down the viewer’s throat during certain scenes. One moment that felt especially unnecessary was Dennis Rader was hitting on a waitress in a diner. The soundtrack lets us know to be scared of Rader, but we already know he’s a serial killer. Even if you weren’t aware of that, the opening scene shows you that he’s a psycho. Therefore, we don’t need a cheesy bit of music to clue us in on Rader’s sinister intentions towards this young woman. It’s fairly obvious because he’s a serial killer!

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The sole saving grace to this otherwise mediocre TV movie is Gregg Henry’s portrayal of Dennis Rader. I kind of wish more scenes featured Henry, because he was excellent in the part. He managed to capture the deeply psychotic side brimming beneath the fake surface of this lunatic, while also showing the façade that so many people bought into (Rader was a boy scout leader and a church leader). However, the aspect that Henry absolutely nailed is the asshole side of Rader, whom many say was constantly abusing his small position of power as a local dogcatcher. There’s a particular encounter with him and a pissed off neighbor that pretty much played out just like it was originally described. Gregg Henry is the only shining talent in HUNT FOR BTK.

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HUNT FOR BTK is a shallow, simple, and cheaply made TV movie of the week. Honestly, I’m kind of glad it turned out that way, because egomaniac serial killer Dennis Rader (who delighted in every bit of attention he got after being arrested) doesn’t deserve a good movie made about him. The cop’s closing voiceover about never giving up in the face of danger is especially insulting to the viewer’s intelligence, because reality (and the film) showed that he didn’t exactly do anything remarkable to catch Rader. The only reasons to watch THE HUNT FOR THE BTK KILLER are for Gregg Henry’s performance or if you’ve just read up on the case and want to see a middle-of-the-road TV movie based on the material.

Grade: C

FEMME FATALE (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexuality, Violence and Language

FemmeFatale poster

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Brian De Palma

Starring: Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney, Rie Rasmussen & Gregg Henry

Femme fatales are prevalent characters in literature and film. They are sexy females who obviously shouldn’t be trusted and headstrong male protagonists end up trusting them anyway. This mistake usually leads to the hero being caught in some sort of trouble or danger…or even death. As opposed to simply waiting in the wings to swoop down on her prey, the femme fatale in 2002’s aptly titled FEMME FATALE takes center stage as a mix of protagonist and antagonist in her own story. Director/writer Brian De Palma may have hit a rough patch of duds in the last two decades, but this stylish box office flop cements itself as his last notably good flick. It’s far from perfect or a modern classic, but FEMME FATALE is a lot of fun for Hitchcock fans and those who dig on De Palma’s earlier thrillers of the 70’s and 80’s.

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Laurie Ash is a thief involved in a particularly complicated diamond heist at the Cannes Film Festival. After the plan is ever so slightly botched, Laurie betrays her two cohorts and makes off with the diamonds. By mere near-fatal coincidence, she winds up in the apartment of Lily, a woman who seems to be Laurie’s doppelgänger. Laurie silently watches as the severely depressed Lily commits suicide. Seizing the opportunity placed in front of her, Laurie steals Lily’s identity and makes off to a new life. Unfortunately, the past has a way of catching up to people and this is definitely the case for Laurie. Nicolas Bardo, a paparazzi who snapped an unfortunate photograph of Laurie, also gets roped into her deadly web of deceit.

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De Palma shows off his fantastic style in the opening scenes of FEMME FATALE. Employing the use of split screens and a suspenseful 15-minute sequence with minimal dialogue between characters, FATALE echoes of De Palma’s previous work and feels contemporary enough to slightly stand out from those films. The level of confidence behind the camera is clear as the director seems to feel right at home in his old territory. The slick visuals and colorful set design lend to a thick atmosphere that’s menacing and absolutely gorgeous to behold.

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Rebecca Romijn is a solid lead as her character plays every man like a fiddle with a dangerous sex appeal and also adopts a convincing French accent. Her wicked character convinces the viewer that the way in which she stacks her cards to come out on top of any opponent is totally plausible. There was one point in Romijn’s delivery that I was ready to chalk up to bad acting, but the way she snaps into different personas showed that this “bad acting” was actually part of her character. I can’t say that I’ve seen Romijn receive any major parts in anything that I’ve seen, save for Mystique in the first three X-MEN films, but she shines here as the title femme fatale. Antonio Banderas, though featured in most of the marketing (including the DVD art), doesn’t really make his way into the film until almost halfway through. Still, he’s a solid, if unconventional protagonist that I was invested in. The way in which he’s manipulated by this dangerous temptress is also very clever.

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The big issues with FEMME FATALE mainly fall into the actual script (written by De Palma). There are a couple of plot developments that are mighty convenient, the biggest of which are the far-fetched odds of running into a suicidal doppelgänger. However, a steady pace is kept that never once dragged (at least for me) and made for a suspenseful time. There are arguably one too many twists involved in the unpredictable conclusion, but props to De Palma for playing a well-worn cliché in a way that didn’t piss me off and actually was somewhat original in its usage. Seeing that De Palma had come off of the likes of RAISING CAIN, MISSION TO MARS, and SNAKE EYES before 2002 and would go on to make THE BLACK DAHLIA (my most hated film of all time), REDACTED (a widely reviled flick) and PASSION (a lame remake of an already badly written French thriller), FEMME FATALE seems to be this acclaimed director’s last gasp of quality filmmaking.

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Though its style exceeds its story and the end result is far from De Palma’s best work, FEMME FATALE is an unconventional thriller that manages to be a lot of fun. It’s a shame that this film flopped hard at the box office upon its release, making under half of its budget back worldwide, because this is a very cool flick. Those seeking a little-known thriller that will actually thrill and surprise, while also maintaining a sense of devilish fun might want to look into 2002’s FEMME FATALE!

Grade: B+

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