The similarities between Joe Lynch’s Mayhem and The Belko Experiment are easy, obvious, and frankly overstated. That being said, Lynch’s film – despite being marketed as a comedic splatterfest (the poster art portending as much) – is more fixated on pounding its round peg into a square hole of manufactured “cult classic” status (a gamble that rarely works).
Despite an overstuffed cast, Greg McLean’s handling of Belko made it a self-contained apocalypse that, while not without humor (some ill-advised), centered on the reactions of characters forced to confront a horrible, kill-or-be-killed situation. Mayhem proceeds in a different direction: mortgage-firm hotshot Derek (Steven Yeun) breaks the news to Cool Girl Melanie (Samara Weaving) that her house is going to be foreclosed on, and gets fired the moment an inhibition-weakening virus is let loose in the building. If Belko was ultimately bleak and not altogether inaccurate about the evil humans are capable of when the rulebook is burnt to a crisp, Mayhem plays up the Cool Factor of contemporary violence while transmuting characterization and dialog into an endless stream of stale Chuck Palahniuk-isms.
The goal of Mayhem is to splice the brutal satire of Fight Club (Palahniuk’s single greatest contribution to popular culture) with the purposefully blood-drenched aesthetics of Smokin’ Aces. Those films were panned by critics and audiences upon their initial release, but have achieved a dedicated following in the ensuing years, and for good reason: their kindred caustic senses of humor and commentaries on the nature and intent of violence positioned them as transcendent of their pulp origins. It also helped that David Fincher and Joe Carnahan were skilled directors by the time the films saw release.
Through Edward Norton-styled voice-over that’s irksome from the start, Derek often states what’s happening on-screen, while providing rapid-fire exposition. The characters in Mayhem are distilled into crude composites of humanity, and possess that too-cool-for-school Palahniuk-ism of being codified by race, gender, and maybe a single unique trait. Take, for example, the Oswald Cobblepot-styled HR guy, nicknamed “The Reaper” (Dallas Roberts), who wears all black and walks with a Verbal Kint limp; or The Siren (Caroline Chikezie), who is the duplicitous, secretary-abusing henchwoman to blandly evil CEO John Towers (Steven Brand).
It’s telling of Mayhem’s aversion to risk that it never veers into overtly political or racial terrain when it comes to its satire. Forget comparing this to Blazing Saddles or even Office Space – Uwe Boll’s Postal did a far better job of pushing buttons in its taste-be-damned send-up of post-9/11 America.
The sense of self-satisfaction radiating from Matias Caruso’s script is exacerbated by Lynch’s blandly stylized direction (tossing out every lame music-video trick in the book), which is content to stick with Derek’s emasculation at the hands of his superiors as a chance for him to wage bloody retribution when the virus hits. The female characters – from the eye candy and attitude of Cool Girl, to the monstrosity of the Siren – are treated as one-note stereotypes at best. The sexist insults Mayhem slings at its female characters (usually by other female characters) are excused as being “okay” because of the nature of the virus, but it’s really just underlining the constant (and too often valid) complaint that horror neither understands – nor wants to understand – women outside of these tired interpretations. Just because you present a female as assertive with a nail gun, or in a position of power within the corporate hierarchy, does not, by default, make them “strong characters.”
One of the most bothersome aspects of Mayhem is its plot-driven nature. As viewers, we don’t care about the plot (I never did, anyway), even though Derek’s nagging voice-over all but implores us to. It brings to mind the must-go-up narratives of The Raid and Dredd, but the suspense is dead on arrival. By comparison, Carnage Park worked because the plot setup (poor farm girl falls at the mercy of the bank to keep her childhood home, only to be abducted by some low-level criminals during a robbery) was just a catalyst for the visceral experience our heroine is subsequently subjected to. Going from helplessness to forced assertion in the name of survival (not unlike Derek or Cool Girl), that film became an inelegant, lonely ride presented in dour sepia tones. With the exception of some stylistic flourishes in the early going, Park relegated itself to the horror of wandering a vast, desolate landscape with nobody to call for help. It was about the experience of witnessing a character’s descent into madness, not the plot.
But Mayhem lacks the confidence to stray from its stiffly structured narrative and into truly interesting terrain. The script and direction lean so heavily on wanting to appease a built-in audience that it never tries very hard, despite the exasperating visuals. It aspires to the oft-misinterpreted ideology of Fight Club, but winds up much closer to The Boondock Saints – and figures most won’t be able to tell the difference.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 1 out of 5 stars