First published by Little White Lies
The traditional slasher is typically a numbers game. A group of characters is introduced, and then, as the killers starts stalking, stabbing and skewering, we witness the torturous tally unfold, trying to guess in which order the ill-fated fools will fall, and who, if anybody, will survive. While Guinea Pigs (aka The Facility) broadly conforms to this body count principle, the killer is a chemical rather than a human agent, and the sequence of woes is schematically pre-determined. For here, the victims are seven volunteers trialling a new pharmaceutical product (called PRO-9) in an isolated clinic, and over one long, very dark night, all will succumb to its deleterious side-effects (nausea, disorientation, inflammation, psychotic violence) according to the precise order in which the drug was administered to each of them. Save for those ‘controls’ lucky enough to have received placebos, these ‘guinea pigs, injected at precise one-hour intervals, will all transform, one by one, into rampaging trippers, a danger as much to themselves as to others.
If, in being the first feature to have been produced through the micro-budget Vertigo School Project (designed to launch the careers of National Film & Television School graduates), Guinea Pigs is something of a pioneering experiment not unlike the prototype drug at its centre, its release history also mirrors the PRO-9’s delayed onset. For Ian Clark’s film, originally scheduled to premiere at FrightFest 2011 but pulled owing to its incompletion, has been a long time coming to the horror festival – and whether the wait has proven salutary is debatable.
What with the obnoxious behaviour of several of the trial subjects, it perhaps takes a while to come into focus, but the real villain here is Big Pharma, whose duty of care is found to be in conflict with the need for profit. Accordingly, we are shown a slick, secretive operation, kept far away from public scrutiny, that is all too happy to exploit the “weak and vulnerable” for a little cash, and to cover up any fallout or even fatalities that might ensue. These are weighty themes if set on a global scale, as in The Constant Gardener, but when they are confined to a facility in the English countryside, and reduced to the slash and dash of genre, they become a little harder to take seriously, especially when the somewhat trite message “corporations are bad” becomes implausibly embodied in an individual named Toby (Jack Doolan). The issue is bigger and more complex than the film can properly accommodate.
The performances here are fine, and the odd thorny moral dilemma is thrown up along with the contents of the patients’ stomachs, but amidst all that running about in the dark, very little real light is cast on the film’s putative subject matter. Everything else is strictly by numbers.
© Anton Bitel