Grungy B-movie horror got respectable years ago. These days people talk about Alien the way they used to talk about Casablanca, and James Gunn is one of the brilliant beneficiaries of weird going mainstream. A graduate of Troma’s freaksploitation factory, Gunn rocketed from cult to cosmic with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the most family-friendly film ever set inside the decomposing skull of a space god. The Belko Experiment feels like his gonzo id unleashed. Gunn produced and wrote the film, which starts on a normal day in a normal-looking office full of normal types played by approachable TV stars. Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn looks trustingly presidential as the COO of Belko Industries. The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr. is a likable Everyguy with an office crush (Emerald City’s Adria Arjona). They’re Americans abroad, working in Bogotá, but they could be in any suburban office park from Santa Fe to Shenzhen.
Then steel walls trap them inside and a voice comes on the loudspeaker, announcing that they have to start killing some of their co-workers — or else they’ll all die. Director Greg McLean initially slow-burns the moral tension. (Should the many sacrifice a few? Which few?) Belko trends too proudly toward ultraviolence, but there’s true-pulp transgression in the film’s shamelessly sick kicks. A mass execution starts off troubling and then, somehow, becomes hilarious. (Paraphrasing Stalin: One death is a tragedy, many deaths are farce.) If “hilarious mass execution” sounds upsetting, I shouldn’t mention the exploding heads. We live in disturbing times. Belko is an appropriately disreputable, gleefully disturbing movie.