"The Belko Experiment" is an odd beast: a horror film that tries to be both conventional gorehound bait and a grimmer, more confrontational movie. An uneasy but potent mix of the darkly comic sensibility of James Gunn (who directed the hyperviolent comedies "Slither" and "Super" before going mainstream with "Guardians of the Galaxy") and the unrelentingly bleak aesthetic of Greg McLean (best known for the outback extreme horror film "Wolf Creek"), "Belko" swings back and forth between giggly grue and more grounded, upsetting violence. If it never fully realizes the potential of its "'Office Space' meets 'Battle Royale'" logline, it still leaves a lingering sense of dread and disgust.
Belko Industries, an American nonprofit operating a building in Bogota, Columbia, looks like a lousy place to work — bland, boring, and bound to suck the life out of you, spiritually if not literally. But when the doors and windows are barred and 80 employees are told they have a finite amount of time to kill 30 co-workers (or else risk 60 dying, courtesy of explosive charges planted in their heads), they descend into panic and infighting quickly. The employees divide into two groups, one (including lead actor John Gallagher Jr.) refusing to play a sick game, the other, led by CEO Tony Goldwyn, weighing all options.
Other cast members falling on opposing sides include Adria Arjona as a woman caught between her boss (Goldwyn) and her boyfriend (Gallagher), John C. McGinley as the co-worker sexually harassing Arjona (and quickly deciding he's on the "let's kill people" side), Sean Gunn (James' brother) as the office stoner, and Melonie Diaz as a new employee trying to hide and wait it out. Gunn and McLean buck expectations early and often, with intense actors like Michael Rooker (previously the villain in Gunn's "Slither" and a murderer in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") turning out to be among the least dangerous and savvier strategies for survival ending at a moment's notice.
The film also does well in casting Gallagher and Goldwyn as the central figures. The latter's descent from calming presence to fascistic figure is the film's most effective choice, with Goldwyn's deep, authoritative tone quickly giving voice to Social Darwinism posing as reason. Still, it's easy to see how many would be swayed by him when Gallagher's everyman fails to come up with a viable alternative or strong counterargument. He's a weak hero by design, someone ill-equipped to deal with harsh reality.
That reality is one of cruelty and brutality. McLean, who suffused "Wolf Creek" with a sense of existential doom long before the villain showed up, directs "Belko" with a comparatively bland color palette that conveys the dullness of the environment and sets us up to be truly rocked when the bodies do start to pile up. A particularly harrowing late-film scene sees Goldwyn and lackeys lining people up to be shot and attempting to drown out their cries with music. Those scenes don't always sit comfortably with some of the broader humor, like the stoner desperately assuming that what he's seeing is in his head, but the best scenes in the film either see laughs sticking in the throat (as when a character assumes they've made it, only to be cruelly taken out) or drowned out altogether.
There's something refreshing about "The Belko Experiment's" refusal to comfort its audience or play directly to their expectations, as well as to its unrepentant and mostly unpretentious schlockiness. At the same time, Gunn's greatest weakness as a writer is his inability to find a greater satirical truth in a scenario that all but serves it up to him on a platter. One could easily see a sharper writer drawing direct parallels to the soullessness of corporate culture and the violence of the company's social experiment, but these ideas remain frustratingly underexplored. It should cut deep, but at least it bludgeons effectively, onscreen and off.