By Elias Savada.
The tongue-in-check, over-the-top aspect of Mayhem, a looney tune of a film from director Joe Lynch, offers a steroid-infused day in the life of a really toxic office environment. And I do mean toxic, as in a nasty, infectious virus nicknamed ID-7, which first appears, appropriately, as a cartoonish drawing. Heck, why not call it the Acme-7 bug as the film is as frenetic as a Willy E. Coyote-Road Runner short? This bad bug makes stress hormone levels rise, blocks neural pathways (don’t you hate when that happens!), and sends folks into fits of rage, wanton sex, and “stupid shit,” as explained by the film’s hero, Derek Cho, as he is about to start a really bad day at Towers and Smythe Consulting. Side effects include punching, stabbing, chocking, tasing, shooting, maiming, and killing friends and cohorts. Aside from the distinct change in one’s emotional equilibrium, one of any infected person’s eyes turns blood red. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has focused on dealing with the outbreaks (over a thousand worldwide) through quarantine-and-experimentation (with a loosely effective neutralizing antibody), it’s an evolving process. Because the infested people (“redders”) cannot control themselves, the courts are tossing out any murder indictments. Splice this basic get-out-of-jail-free set-up onto the widespread corporate malfeasance atop the office building, and the eight-hour work day in Mayhem feels like an adrenaline-infused blend of The Purge, Office Space, and Die Hard.
This fast-paced movie finds the once-bright, still-ambitious, now-tarnished dreams of hot-shot, stressed-out, no-time-for-family, executive associate legal analyst Derek (Steven Yeun, a.k.a. Glenn from The Walking Dead), stuck in the company’s mid-level work force on the 5th floor of the firm’s building. A perfect spot for him to become the patsy of the self-serving board of directors at the top (very limited access penthouse) and near top (8th floor), with the monikers John “The Boss” Towers (Steven Brand), Director of Operators Kara “The Siren” Powell (Caroline Chikezie), Human Resources’ Lester “The Reaper” McGill (Dallas Roberts), and grand inquisitor Irene Smythe (Kerry Fox) – all heartless beasts.
While Matias Caruso’s script, his feature debut, is lean and mean, it also has an annoying hole that doesn’t explain why Derek and his sexy companion, Melanie Cross, aren’t at each other’s throats. For me, it’s a minor issue and mildly irritating. Cross, played by spunky Samara Weaving (Hugo’s niece and daughter of director-writer Simon Weaving) is a beauty in the Margot Robbie mold. As Mayhem begins, she’s an adversary putting her best foot forward arguing against Derek over a foreclosure notice. A half-hour later they’re armed with a nail gun, a hammer, cool sunglasses, and other tools for improvised destruction.
The film’s video game antics revolve about finding the right elevator key card to move up a floor and take on the escalating shenanigans of the crazed, cocaine-sniffing CEO. Lynch’s firm direction offers constant motion and imaginative blocking among his cast, with key contributions from editor Josh Ethier’s frantic cutting, director of photography Steve Gainer’s amusing angles and quick tracking shots, and Steve Moore’s creative soundtrack with its emphatic whoosh effects that drive the film’s throbbing heartbeat. The limited instructional commentary delivered casually by Derek works to the film’s advantage, giving off counterpoint humor that provides many of the film’s lighter moments.
Ah, yes, it is a horror film, and very much in the relentless splatter vein that the Troma empire churns out, albeit with a more attractive cast and higher production values. That makes sense as Lynch did serve time early in his training with the legendary makers of Toxic Avenger. I like the way the film balances MacGyveresque brinkmanship, witty repartee about the Dave Matthews Band and Birkenstocks, enthusiastic acting, and lots of bloody fun.
As Mayhem hits some intense stand-offs, Lynch breaks them up with some intensely funny interruptions, particularly one in which a CDC psychologist calls in on a speaker phone and tries to calm down an already hyperactive mob. It’s a very creatively edited segment and shows off how lively and entertaining Lynch handles the script. I’m only left wondering when several of the mid-level staff had the time to draw words like “kill” on the front of their bloody clothes. Frankly, it doesn’t matter because too much analysis spoils the kinetic enjoyment.
Set in an unnamed American locale, the only evidence that the film was shot in Belgrade is a Dechkotzar t-shirt Derek is seen wearing at the end of the film. Kudos to the Serbian cast, technicians, and stuntmen for showing how crazy Americans can be. Available now in theaters, VOD, and Digital HD.
Read Tom Ue’s interview with Samara Weaving about the film here.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).