Studio: Dread Presents
Director: Tom Paton
Writer: Tom Paton
Producer: George Burt
Stars: Samantha Schnitzler, Mike Beckingham, Kris Johnson, Bentley Kalu, Angela Dixon, Phoebe Robinson-Galvin, Sophia Del Pizzo, Andy Gibbins, Lauren Ashley Carter
Cultists clash with special agents at a top-secret facility dedicated to deporting elder gods to another dimension.
The peak for paying homage to 80s horror, specifically John Carpenter, shrinks in cinema’s rearview mirror daily. Nevertheless, contemporary moviemakers continue tricking out fright films with Albertus fonts and synth scores hoping to recreate retro vibes.
Even though the trend has hit its twilight, I’m not opposed to such techniques provided they fit the storytelling style. And even though John Carpenter delivered an all-time entry in the siege subgenre with “Assault on Precinct 13,” I’m not sure the karate-kicking cosmic horror of “Black Site’s” supernatural siege plot earns the throwback frame forced around its fiction.
You know you’re in for an awkwardly complicated setup when, instead of effectively using film as a visual medium, explanatory text or narration is necessary to get an audience up to speed. “Black Site” starts with both. Title cards and voiceovers lay down background about Artemis, an international Special Forces organization dedicated to deporting Lovecraftian elder gods to another dimension. The top-secret place where these deportations take place is Black Site, which prevents elder gods from escaping by imprisoning them within an electrified light field.
Because laying eyes on one would drive a person mad, and because “Black Site” can’t afford to create one in its complete Cthulhu-like glory, elder gods are also imprisoned inside human hosts. Erebus, the captured god this story centers on, ends up in the body of a convicted murderer. Peculiarly, this gives Erebus the flavor of a knockoff Ramsay Bolton, which is precisely how Kris Johnson plays him. It’s not Johnson’s fault the script gives him questionable lines like, “the foot doesn’t make friends with the dog sh*t it steps in.” But chewing on each interpersonal confrontation like he’s Hannibal Lecter taunting a profiler doesn’t make Erebus seem like an eons-old entity with incomprehensible intelligence.
As a child, Ren saw Erebus murder her parents. This inspired Ren to follow her father’s footsteps toward becoming an Artemis field officer, a position repeatedly denied due to Ren’s longstanding psychological trauma. At her current rung on the Artemis ladder, Ren instead has to supervise the deportation officer preparing to exorcise Erebus. Still haunted by what happened, Ren wants nothing more than to confront the monster who killed mom and dad. She’ll get that faceoff and several more when killer cultists infiltrate Black Site aiming to free their murderous master.
A wealth of material exists here involving magic portals, incantations, otherworldly creatures, masked swordsmen, and secret military units. A story toying with this many creative ideas shouldn’t be boring and yet conspicuous restrictions repeatedly push the film down into dullness.
“Black Site” basically bites off a high concept its low budget can’t completely chew. Unable to indulge in its lofty ambitions, “Black Site” fills spaces where spectacle should be with overlong dialogue dumps and two-person tête-à-têtes. Even though the duration runs roughly 85 minutes, I would wager the screenplay runs 120+ pages given how many words endlessly issue forth at unhurried speeds. Excepting the occasional flair of competently choreographed fight sequences, drama and suspense are almost exclusively engineered through chatty conversations preoccupying most of the movie.
“Black Site” isn’t bad. It’s just bland, which is a criticism trickling down to the long list of lukewarm performances. Everyone among the cast of unfamiliar actors could use a sharp spark of personality to liven the film’s weak pulse. In editing as well as individual scene staging, writer/director Tom Paton ignores an imaginary finger snap to let pacing play without energetic urgency. Anemia subsequently settles in “Black Site’s” bloodstream as its thrills thin out.
Faint whiffs of obvious influences like “Prince of Darkness” and “Escape from New York” waft by infrequently. But Lovecraftian chillers, particularly one highlighted by espionage action, weren’t staples of 1980s horror like slashers were for instance. That’s why “Black Site’s” efforts to look and sound 30 years older than it actually is don’t make contextual sense. Chalk up this desire to be a John Carpenter movie John Carpenter never would have made as part of the conflict routinely faced as the film struggles for a distinguishing identity.
For an upstart indie, “Black Site” still looks pretty cool, which frustratingly amplifies disappointment over the story’s underserved execution. The subterranean location where everything takes place gives “Day of the Dead’s” cave a serious run for its money, and George Burt shoots the hell out of it with slick lighting and camerawork. What few CGI enhancements make it onscreen generally look good too. I’m honestly interested in seeing what Tom Paton and company can cook up when working on a longer leash with fewer kinks, as they clearly understand how to craft sci-fi scares on a technical level. I merely want to see them apply their talents to a project more exciting than “Black Site,” or at least one whose intrigue isn’t undercut by practical limitations.
Review Score: 45