The Weirdest Elevator Pitch Ever Conceived
Without even the honor of a Wikipedia page, Black Site truly flew under the radar. No, I’m not talking about the Black Site that recently came out this year, nor the Black Site from 2009 either. Yeah, not a good omen, is it? This is a far more bonkers film, and one best appreciated with a little knowledge of film history. While you don’t need to have viewed Assault on Precinct 13 to really get the movie, it certainly will appeal more to those who love the lo-fi early work of John Carpenter. That particular brand recognition is likely its primary selling point in a saturated and very competitive horror market.
Black Site’s opening crawl is noteworthy not only as an exposition dump, but as a clear homage to the aforementioned Carpenter, the pulsing synth soundtrack and typeface a clear signal from writer/director Tom Paton as to what type of film you are signing up for. Call it neo-nostalgia.
From the opening crawl, we learn humans have mastered the dark arts in order to house the “Elder Gods” in the titular Artemis Black Site, run by the covert security force Artemis. No more backstory is really needed, though the vagueness of the agency and lore will likely annoy some. It’s gritty and grounded, yet also is a buddy cop movie with ninja cultists. It’s simultaneously a movie about nostalgia bait, existential philosophy, cosmic horror, feminist heroes, modern-day wizards, supernatural possession, SCP-like agencies, and demonic romance. Why bother with one genre when you can have them all, right?
In 1926, the film states, demons from beyond our universe returned from their banishment to wreak havoc once more. Luckily, the US government is really, really good at incarcerating foreigners, “black site” being a term used to denote a government site where the CIA tortured alleged “terrorists” and “spies” for information. Mercifully, there are no political messages being communicated by Paton to further clutter up the plot.
Ren Reid (Samantha Schnitzler) is stuck living up to dead father’s impossibly lofty legacy, however she is deemed “psychologically unfit” to join the ranks of active duty personnel. A “level 10 hostile” needing to be dealt with quickly, the Artemis team calls in their house deportation officer, who just so happens to have a photographic memory, Ren relegated to babysitting the civvie.
Guns are notably inoperable on the premise to prevent cultist fanboys and goth girls from trying to slaughter agents attempting to question and deport their dark deities to other dimensions. It’s magic, don’t ask how it works. The defense is necessary to avoid another army of Squeaky Frommes wiping the place out yet again with machine guns. It doesn’t work out well this time either, the supernatural agents seemingly oblivious to the existence of arrows, unlike the cult members, who easily infiltrate the base armed with weapons you can buy off of Ebay for twenty bucks. To say this film has contrivances is being generous.
Wearing its inspiration on its sleeve, Black Site does wrangle all its disparate influences into a minimalist if not wholly original concept, one that easily could have devolved into something silly like RIPD. So how does a film with so many genres and tropes crammed into it hold up?
The elder gods suck zealous human cult members dry, removing their essence. Should that sound like a one-sided deal, the film does attempt a surprise twist I will not divulge. Interestingly, the demon-possessed criminal saves the film from needing ridiculous CGI, and that’s easily Paton’s shrewdest decision. We never see the demon, only the human host he has possessed. It’s a subtle touch.
That said, the central conflict drags out a little too long. Erebus, our villain, is played competently by Kris Johnson, though the smug-British-villain trope has worn painfully thin at this point in our culture. His erudite ramblings sound pretty generic, and could have been lifted from practically any other action film. Likewise, none of the henchmen or henchwomen are provided any characterization whatsoever. Hans Gruber’s gang this is not.
Jay Austin, played by Bentley Kalu, serves as surrogate father for Ren, but he isn’t given much to work with. Sam (Mike Beckingham) offers arguably the only good performance as the comic relief. It’s only when Sam is around that the other characters break their grating, macho routine, which breathes some life into an otherwise stodgy action movie. The ultimate issue is simply that the characters are so thin, we have little reason to really care about them regardless of a grandiose plot about lovesick, eldritch cult idols.
Despite some predictable action schlock, corny lines, and uneven performances, the film makes economical and effective use of limited budget, providing a satisfying if underwhelming ending. Max Sweiry’s score deserves praise as well, which ironically highlights the film’s main stumbling block. It’s professional enough to avoid so-bad-it’s-good territory and clinch out-right cult classification, yet it’s also not slick enough to really pull off the drama or action or be all that memorable.
This film is available on most streaming services, and for free on services like Roku and Tubi, with some ads.
Black Site (2018) Official Trailer