The Horror of Sociology

The Belko Experiment
The Belko Experiment

John Bleasdale looks at the role of sociologists in modern horror cinema.

Who are the go-to baddies in horror movies today? Dead Korean girls who don’t own hairclips? Nah. Zombies? Per-lease. Paedophile killers with blades for fingers? Nope. So who? And I don’t even necessarily mean the villains you see. I mean the evil that lurks behind the monster, the way the real villain of The Exorcist is not the demonically possessed girl but the Catholic church, which foists such an evil universe on us that makes demonically possessed little girls possible.

So who is it? Who are they? The millennial equivalent of vampires and werewolves.

In a word: sociologists.

Think about it. Think of all those locked room films. Behavioural psychology 101. What would you do in this situation? With a splash of the prisoner’s dilemma thrown in. You could watch the three Cube films, the many, many Saw entries. Stuart Hazeldine’s Exam, which takes The Apprentice to an enjoyably sadistic conclusion. The whole point of these films – along with their more visceral torture porn cousins – is toying with people and pushing them to the extremes of their behaviour. It’s claustrophobic and, of course, cheap. Their real-life inspiration was given a straight drama treatment in The Stanford Prison Experiment. The real experiment took place during a week in August in 1971. Volunteer students were randomly assigned roles of prisoner or guard. Without prompting the guards quickly asserted themselves in a number of degrading and abusive ways while the prisoners unanimously succumbed passively to the state of affairs. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment pumps up the violence and the numbers involved. What’s more, the subtext – could an authoritarian regime happen here? Who would participate? – is obviously text when it appears in a German film.

Rather than a personal and psychological experiment, The Purge presents a larger societal ‘what if’. As a way of solving violence, one day is allocated to a… you know the story already. Of course, it’s head-scratchingly stupid – the kind of nugget Star Trek would come up with when Gene Roddenberry had a hangover. The first film actually uses the premise for nothing more than a siege drama, but the two subsequent sequels attempt to push the premise into realms of social satire the films themselves don’t seem to fully understand.
The recently released The Belko Experiment goes further by making sociology itself the point of the film. This, by the way, is not a spoiler, considering it’s in the title. Written by James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean who brought us the excellent Wolf Creek as well as the execrable Wolf Creek 2, the movie is a derivative piece of work with high production values and a way-too-talented cast. The concept is openly familiar to fans of Battle Royale and its progeny, including its own sequels, as well as The Purge and The Hunger Games.

An American company in Columbia, South America, has been set up to promote American investment. The open plan office hosts the usual character types: the gay guy, the tech nerd, the newbie, the bitch, the sexy girl, the lech, the boss and the John Krasinski (played by John Gallagher Jr.). Over the tannoy a familiar homicidal calculus is introduced: murder three of your co-workers in the next 20 minutes or six will be killed via a neck implant. What follows is amusing in parts, but so weirdly predictable that even the characters in the film successfully anticipate the story beats. The only way the film could really become something more than a wittily violent ‘and then there was one’ kind of game is if the final revelation was something beautifully ironic. Something along the lines of Cabin in the Woods. But no, the revelation is [SPOILER] sociologists. Yes, sociologists. ‘There are some experiments we can’t do in the US,’ the professor Zimbardo wannabe intones. ‘Too many regulations’.

Leave aside the stupid racism – set in Columbia where such pesky don’t-commit-mass-murder regulations (AKA laws) don’t exist. Leave aside the stupidity of the experiment itself. If these sociologists truly wanted to know how people behave when they are trapped in a confined place and forced to kill each other, all they needed was to watch the last two decades of horror cinema.

John Bleasdale