REVIEW: The Control Group
– By Allan Lear
The film industry is infamous for labelling its products in a way that misrepresents them completely to the potential audience. I’ve spoken before about trailers that are edited to give a false impression of the movie they portray, but there are other ways they do it as well.
Reviews are routinely filleted for a cherry-picked quote that, decontextualised, gives the appearance of being far more positive than it really was. In 2008, the Telegraph reported that this practice would be made illegal, quoting an example where a revival of Guys and Dolls was quoted as being “hilarious” despite the fact that the reviewer had said something more to the effect of “the film is hilarious, this show isn’t”. Despite this threatened legislative crackdown, Tom Hardy’s film Legend featured a two-star review from the Guardian’s Ben Kingsley…which positioned the stars behind Hardy’s head so that it appeared to be a more generous score. The exemplar is surely from the back of a Not The Nine O’Clock News annual: “This book is […] not […] a complete pile of shit”.
Even simple terminology is misused. It’s not just that superlatives are freely used to describe the most quotidian material (Jim Davidson’s The Truth, The Whole Truth is “the most outrageous live show ever!” according to some copywriter who has evidently never been to Bangkok); it’s also that the terminology of film discourse is bandied about with no regard for denotational accuracy. British gangster thriller? Must be “gritty” then, even if it’s Life on Mars. Documentaries are “fearless” even if they’re about teaching in Royal Tunbridge Wells. Comedies are “hilarious!” – always with that teeth-grinding exclamation mark – even if they are dark and wry and cynical.
But the description that always annoys me with its undeserved omnipresence is “clever”. Now, I realise that as fans of genre films we tend towards the right-hand side of the bell curve in the cranial content stakes, but some of the films that describe themselves as “clever” are just…well. I mean. I don’t want to throw about words like “subnormal” or “bovine” or “fatuous” or “moronic” or “tits on a bull”, but come on. Is Secret Window really a mentally challenging film? Was anyone’s horizon expanded by The Butterfly Effect? Were we baffled, perplexed and intrigued by The Game?
No. They were bollocks.
Part of the reason people make this mistake is that they think “convoluted” is the same as “complex”. If the idea behind a film takes twenty years to expound, that must make it a clever film, right? Well, of course not. Some clever films can be quite succinctly explained – Arrival, for instance. Aliens arrive and we need to figure out how to translate their language. Some stupid films take forever to explain – what, if anything, is the plot of Freddie Got Fingered? And some films defy explanation because it’s perfectly clear that the writer had no idea what was going on himself.
The Control Group is a science fiction/horror film about a bunch of unfortunate kids who are involved in a bizarre scientific experiment involving the persistence of personal identity in a purgatorial afterlife. These twentysomething know-nothings have been plucked unconscious from the aftermath of a pretty dismal-seeming party and deposited in an experimental building similar to The Cabin in the Woods; part wood-panelled death-trap, part secretive laboratory area. From there the narrative takes a sinister twist…
…or does it? I don’t know. Look, I’ll describe the plot to you as best I can remember it, and you can decide. So it turns out that the teenagers have been kidnapped by a secret CIA operation which is under the command of Brad Dourif, a doctor of some sort who has discovered a magic chair that enables you to access the afterlife provided you don’t mind being possessed by a cannibal paedophile in the process which isn’t the primary concern at the moment because for some reason dead people are coming back as unkillable intelligent zombies with glowing yellow eyes which is possibly to do with them being remotely possessed by the cannibal although since they haven’t been in the magic chair it’s not clear how that could have happened and anyway Dr Dourif is more concerned about dissent in the ranks of the CIA soldiers who appear not to agree that he should use a magic chair to examine the afterlife which admittedly does seem to have limited military potential and all this time the kidnapped students are dying in peculiar ways in a randomly-shifting environment that seems to be generated by their subconscious minds and dying in this manner is recorded as having “failed” some sort of test at least until they start coming back as zombies and one of them, the suicidal one, is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died in the magic chair and who needs to put her own dead body back into it in order to foil the efforts of the cannibal because otherwise he will break free from the purgatorial afterlife and return to Earth although since he’s already got unkillable zombies wandering around a heavily-armed CIA installation I don’t really see how that would make things much worse.
Answers on a postcard, please, to the usual Slaughtered Bird address with the heading “What In The Actual Literal Fuck?”
The Control Group is a film that fails on pretty much every conceivable level. Even the redoutable Dourif, who was excellent as Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings films and actually has some pretty good acting pedigree, cannot find a way through the brambled undergrowth of expository bafflegab that goes nowhere near explaining this ludicrous mess. Many of the actors, far below Dourif’s level of competence or experience, collapse completely under the strain. The chap playing the dead nonce in purgatory, when finally revealed, manages to be reminiscent of nothing so much as a dementia patient in a hospital gown, like the guy who gets kneed in the pods at the start of Young Frankenstein.
The special effects are woeful, consisting of dodgy electrical effects and drawn-on yellow “possession” eyes that look like they’ve been scratched directly into the filmstock, the way ghost pictures would be faked in the early twentieth century. The creature effects are good, though, since they largely consist of a large man bridgewalking along like Kayako Saeki while weighing about five times her body mass in muscle. He’s surprisingly flexible for a large man.
And since the teenagers in the laboratory are actively being experimented upon, then it appears that the titular control group never even appear in the whole movie which is named after them. I’m all for crediting the unsung heroes, but this is ridiculous.