Man, how can you not love a movie with a title like Mayhem? The sad fact is, while there’s a lot to like about Mayhem, there’s not a lot to love, and despite some gleefully over the top acting from Steven Yuen, Samara Weaving and the entirety of the cast, there’s a lot to dislike.
Like this year’s The Belko Experiment, we have a corporate workplace as the setting for a quarantine/outbreak story. The main obvious difference being that this isn’t some secret evil experiment, it’s just a good old-fashioned viral outbreak. The virus in this film is one of the rarer versions of a zombie-like virus we’ve seen before, where people’s inhibitions suddenly disappear. Cronenberg’s Shivers and Romero’s The Crazies are good examples of this kind of virus, and how it’s similar but different from your usual zombie virus quarantine movie. What happens once the outbreak gets loose in the building is your typical “bottle episode” style of movie, with one main location that the whole film takes place in. There are a lot of things the movie tries and it does take some risks – it risks alienation from the audience in trying to make basically a white collar executive figure an underdog, or at least a likable protagonist. Steven Yuen also brings a lot of charm to a role that might’ve been supremely dour if someone less enthusiastic was cast. It is a unique breath of fresh air to see this kind of character portrayed as someone at least attempting some kind of moral contrition for their own privilege, even if it comes off a bit shallow and ultimately overwrought.
Overwrought being the key word here, as the fact of the matter is that narration as a film device is very corny unless it’s impeccably written, and while this isn’t beyond terrible, it’s far from good enough to justify such blatant exposition. There’s a lot of verbal not nearly as smart as it thinks it is, and I’m saying that as a fan of Showtime’s Billions. It’ll get your eyeballs rolling around inside your head a few times for sure, but that’s the double-edged sword of putting narration in a film these days. A smaller issue is one of pacing, as the film does take a good while to build up its cadre of characters after introducing the concept of an impulsive-zombie-rage-sex-virus or whatever it is. I’m going to refer to it as the Cage virus because it makes every actor in this go full Nicolas Cage with their over the top acting, and I love that kind of thing, but your mileage may vary.
One of the main issues that kept me from really loving this movie, because believe you me there’s nothing I want to love more than a movie full of corporate real estate jerks killing each other, is that the main plan the characters hatch is inherently contradictory to the nature of the virus the movie establishes. We’re supposed to buy that Yuen and Weaving’s characters are infected with lessened inhibitions and self-control, yet by plot necessity, their entire plan of survival through the quarantine requires self-control and situational awareness. What this translates to really, is they act like they’re infected until they don’t until they suddenly do again. The beauty of the horror genre, however, is that sometimes a big payoff is worth it all in the end. That’s where this really stumbles. The near Hallmark card ending is pretty egregiously cringe-inducing, and is probably the biggest obstacle I have from widely recommending this to others. It comes off forced no matter how you slice it, and after the movie spends so long convincing you it’s one thing, when it tries to pull the rug out from under you, it does not seem like an attempt at subversion, but merely adherence to old cliches. Which is odd.
Mayhem is sort of a spiritual sister film to The Belko Experiment, with similar visual palettes and influences. Is corporate-slaughter-core an emergent genre? This and Belko would make such a complementary double bill. Perhaps that’s the context in which this film is best enjoyed, but until then, people expecting a bit more mayhem from a movie called Mayhem might find it lacking.
GEEK Grade: C-
Images: RLJE Films