Film is about something scarier than murder

By Gary Clift

On the one hand the new movie “The Belco Experiment” is an Agatha Christie concept as a horror picture. Eighty people are barricaded inside an eight-story building, the intercom begins making announcements, and people start dying.

And the deaths are gory. I’ve read, recently, that the family trust that controls the Christie properties was allowing more graphic violence in film versions of the plots. Today’s audiences apparently like the unreal concept stories, but want spatter in the scenes of violence.

But viewers really don’t have to squint their eyes and look sideways to realize that “The Belco Experiment” is also about eugenics, about the government or some other man-made authority deciding who will live and who will be killed.

Our (rightful, I think) horror of this sort of business was at the heart of a controversy about federal funding for biologic research about a dozen years ago. Now here is part of the problem dramatized.

Not that those who see the movie will feel sure its makers had noble or intellectual motives.

In the film, Belco is an American non-profit concern which helps American companies recruit Americans to work in South American countries. The Belco building in which the action takes place is in Bogata.

The employees have each had an electronic “tag” implanted in the back of his head. These “tags” will supposedly reduce insurance rates by making it possible to trace anyone
who is kidnapped. On the day in question, new security guys show up at the fences which surround the building, its tiny parking lot, and a large and mysterious out-building.

Inside we meet maybe a dozen of the employees, who tend to be young and happy. They work in bull pens and in more isolated administrative offices. We learn there is a flat roof, a kitchen, a lobby, stairways and elevators, and a remarkably complicated basement. And, surprisingly, there are heavy steel curtains that come down automatically to cover the doors and windows.

They come down about the time the voice on the intercom tells those inside that “In eight hours, most of you will be dead.” The voice gives the employees—who are bureaucrats and clerical workers, two building superintendents and one security officer—half an hour to kill two of their own number. Otherwise the outside power will off half a dozen of the employees. Everyone thinks the announcements are a bad joke until the six are killed. It turns out the “tags” are actually little bombs which are controlled by someone inside the outbuilding. That someone can see inside the building, too. When the guy with one week of beard (John Gallagher Jr.) tried to dig his tag out of his head, using an Exacto knife, the intercom warned him by name.

The top Belco executive in the building (Tony Goldwyn) calls everyone to a meeting in the lobby. Some employees— the personnel chief and the security guard, for example— disagree with the boss’s rational but chilling analysis of their circumstances. More murders are ordered via intercom.

Once they begin killing each other, individuals and small groups split off to hide in different parts of the building. The doper tries hanging SOS signs from the parapets and is shot at by guards. Telephones, including cells, no longer work.

One guy writes a note to his family, assuming he will be killed. One girl hides in the basement, witnessing murders, and then on the top of an elevator car.

Sycophants and the vicious (including one character played by John C. McGinley and a less enthusiastic one played by Owain Yeoman) join the boss before rebels turn the slaughter into something more complicated.

The conclusion allows for some revenge. But “The Belco Experiment” really isn’t about payback. With its weird concept and its exploitation of routine developments, it is about how some survive and some don’t. And about the organizers’ inability to determine the outcome. And about the cold-heartedness of scientific experimentation.

No, this really isn’t just a gory horror movie. Its about something scarier than bloody murder.

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