Some of the most fascinating films in the horror genre explore the use and abuse of psychotropic drugs. Effective recent examples include Adam Wingard’s nightmarish Pop Skull (2007), Eduardo Sanchez’s chilling Lovely Molly (2011), and Jeremiah Kipp’s haunting short film Contact (2009). These directors present wholly frightening explorations of the effects of mind-altering substances on the minds of fragile people who have chosen the hallucinatory world of drugs over the cruelty of sober life. British filmmaker Ian Clark’s feature debut The Facility sidesteps recreational drug use as a backdrop, and instead uses corporate pharmaceutical drug testing to build his foundation. The result is a trim and sturdy example of mind-altering cinematic terror that is comparable to the other works cited.
Clark sets the stage for his visceral examination by rounding up a solid ensemble of test subjects who he then confines to the isolated conditions of the Limebrook Medical Clinic. Out in the middle of nowhere, seven volunteers take part in the trial of an experimental drug called Pro-9, a development of the mysterious company ProSyntrex. The diverse characters range from financially strapped students Adam, Carmen and Arif, journalist Katie, and experienced research subject Morty, an unemployed former military vet. Each has his or her reason for participating, but it’s clear that the common characteristic is financial desperation; they could all use the money being offered for a two week stay at the clinic. This group will face a night of unrelenting terror when side effects cause some of the subjects to react with bloody violence against their fellow participants.
Normally this type of setup would amass a collection of annoying archetypes wandering around in the dark as each succumbs to a stalking monster. Clark, however, uses the minimal setting to create a stark feeling of isolation and paranoia where anyone can be the monster. Since no one – not even hospital staff – knows when or how the drug will affect the subjects individually, suspicion becomes a valuable component of the film. The scenario makes for some tense moments that harkens to the tone of films like Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Though Clark’s film is extremely modest when compared to those classics, his work is still worthy of evaluation in this regard.
What’s most frightening about Clark’s work is the potential for the events in the film to occur in the real world. These aren’t hordes of walking dead or mutants, but normal people who have succumbed to an extraordinarily painful rage that exaggerates their natural anxieties. Clark addresses the corrupt, often barbaric nature of the pharmaceutical industry, where relaxed regulations allows for risky trials, manipulation of results, and the release of harmful drugs on markets all over the world. A character named Joni – one with family connections to the pharmaceutical industry – comments that testing is safe these days because “it’s all regimented”: the group finds out, however, that this is far from the truth.
Clark eschews a music score in order to build suspense with sound or lack thereof; The Facility works best when the unaltered characters are cowering in the dark as screams echo around the hospital’s otherwise quiet corridors. The clinical setting, therefore, becomes as frightening as any dilapidated old house found in today’s horror climate. One particularly jarring scene stands out as a triumph over cliché as a character using the flash of her camera to light up a dark room is surprised by a vicious attack. It’s moments like this that make The Facility an accomplishment in tension.
The Facility is not without its flaws; the ending is rather abrupt, and some viewers might feel slighted by the anecdotal conclusion that summarizes the outcome. Clark does, however, juxtapose the text with striking images of the aftermath; here he illustrates the irony of the “official” report on the event with the actual story just witnessed by the viewer. Those looking for a standard showdown ending between “infected” and “uninfected” may be disappointed in Clark’s realistic approach – the drug has simply run its course to the dismay of the survivors who’ve committed horrible acts.
Those who appreciate horror as an allegory for real world issues will find much to appreciate in The Facility. The film is ultimately about unfettered experimentation and the social conditions that allow big companies to act irresponsibly at the expense of desperate people. If social commentary isn’t your cup of tea, the film also works on a visceral level where rampant violence strikes quickly in the sterile climate of a corrupt clinic hiding behind a guise of altruism.
The Facility will be available on VOD starting September 24th and showing at special late night theatrical engagements September 27th from Tribeca Films.