Directed by: Rich Fox
Haunted house culture is in a time of innovation and evolution. The traditional boo haunts of old are becoming more Hollywood with animatronics and film quality special fx or they’re getting grittier and “extreme” with full contact experiences. Often these full contact experiences are lengthy solo affairs where a single “victim” enters the haunt alone and is at the mercy of the people running the show. The first extreme haunt that made headlines was McKamey Manor, a multi-hour torture test of frights and literal torture. Participants in these haunts are as much a mystery as the haunts themselves. The Blackout Experiments firmly focuses on the participants but still heightens the mystery and scares of this new wave of haunt.
Early in the film there’s a montage of messages left on the filmmaker’s voicemail from people planning to participate in Blackout, a solo participant haunt focused both on psychological and physical torture. The filmmakers apparently posted in the Blackout forums that they were planning a documentary and were looking for potential subjects to follow through the process of going through the haunt. There’s no telling how many people the filmmakers actually followed through the process. They end up with an eclectic mix of people to follow who all have their own reasons for seeking out this experience.
Most of the participants interviewed do share a need to put themselves to the test, to see just how much they can take before uttering a safe word that ends their experience. The reasons for wanting to test themselves are what set them apart from each other. At the onset of signing up for Blackout participants must fill out a questionnaire that quite cleverly reveals a lot about the their psychological makeup. The answers to these questions are then used against them inside Blackout to make the experience truly terrifying. When watching the movie you may question why certain scenarios are so traumatizing to a “victim” but you have to remember that these scenes are very precisely designed to play on a person’s worst fears, and psychological weaknesses. On that note, the film does a spectacular job of building tension and making the voyeuristic experience of watching the movie feel off-putting at the least and truly terrifying at the worst, or best depending on how you feel about these things.
The Blackout Experiments is more than you expect, more than the sum of its parts. The experience of watching the movie is often terrifying, always fascinating, and surpassingly moving. The creators of Blackout are amazing manipulators from beginning to end. They keep the participants on edge, even those that have participated in the experience multiple times, and they manage to do the same to us as we watch the film. Who are these people? What’s their endgame? Are they in my house? The film never stops being creepy and at one point the participants in the documentary question the motives of the filmmakers! The tension in this film continues to amp up so that in some small way we feel the same paranoia and fear that the victims feel as they keep going back to Blackout and the experience gets more and more maniacal.
As a documentary fanatic it should have impact that I say that there have been very few character studies are this successful in making me experience the same level of emotion as the interviewees. Sure, message based documentaries and some historical documentaries can bring up emotions as they happen but seldom do quirky character studies succeed at this level of emotional involvement outside of shedding a tear during a sad moment. This is real palpable tension and fear.
The only hiccups in this film come in the production and the character balance. The film tries to focus on several characters but the bulk of the movie follows one man. Sure, this particular man’s story is the most fascinating but if you’re going to follow other characters their needs to be a purposeful balance. The film could have done with a few less characters. Trimming back the number of people in the film probably would have solved the balance issue. The production is low-fi and dark, almost lightless. I understand that the production is supposed to mimic the experience and for the most part if works but a break in the darkness here and there with some clean images and color would have been appreciated. This quibble is definitely subjective though.
Overall The Blackout Experiments is a tense and exhausting watch and that’s a full on compliment. The film is scary, fascinating, and it has surprising heart. This little film, and the haunt itself if you can call it that, has a lot to say about the human condition and what we can take day to day in and out of Blackout. The Blackout Experiments is easily one of the best documentaries of the year. You’re not likely to see another film like this one in 2016.