Black Site first look review Arrow Video FrightFest 2018

Tom Paton’s Lovecraftian action sci-fi Black Site is a mashed-up homage to Carpenter and the Eighties.

“You know my girlfriend left me last week because she said I was too safe. Now look at me: I’m running around an underground facility, fighting wannabe ninjas, with a cracked rib, so as I could deport a god.”

The speaker is Sam Levi (Mike Buckingham), delivering one of those conveniently recapitulatory lines, typical especially of Eighties genre films, that are there merely to be quoted in the trailer. Black Site does not disguise – indeed, is at pains to advertise – its status as an Eighties throwback. The specific font of its opening titles, and the synth pulse that accompanies them, directly evoke the films of John Carpenter – and if the date in which its prologue is set, 1997, does not quite sound like the Eighties, it is the precise year in which the (future) events of Carpenter’s Escape From New York occurred. The rest of the film takes place in the present day – although its action is pointedly confined to a military bunker that has not been updated for decades, and might have featured in any number of Reagan-era flicks.

Written and directed by Tom Paton (PandoricaRedwood), Black Site is neither remake nor reimagining, but rather a loving homage to the kind of anything-goes paranoid sci-fi actioners which were once the specialty of Carpenter and Cronenberg. Ren Reid (Samantha Schnitzler) has always longed to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather by becoming a fully fledged field officer for the top secret Artemis programme, but after, as a child, seeing with her own eyes the ‘Elder God’ that just killed her parents, she has repeatedly been evaluated as psychologically unfit for fieldwork, and relegated to introduction and orientation duties for newbies on the base. Yet when that same Elder God, Erebus, is captured in the body of a convicted criminal Jerome (Kris Johnson) and brought onto base for interrogation and deportation to an infernal dimension, Ren finds herself tested physically and emotionally by the violent invasion of a cult hell-bent on retrieving their god.

The resulting genre mash-up involves Lovecraftian lore, and – as magic prevents firearms being used on the base – plenty of martial arts and swordplay, as well as some literal Hammer Time (à la The Raid 2). The facility might be designated a black site, but it boasts zones that are yellow, green and blue, allowing for some stylised colour coding to keep things visually interesting. Less interesting, at least eventually, are Ren’s episodic freakout visions of her possessed parents, a comet and a winged tentacular entity, which, though a welcome escape from the environs of the facility, become in themselves a repetitive routine.

New here is the shift in gender politics. Just as Ren is the first woman in her family line to work for Artemis, the site’s top brass Jennifer Wilkinson (Angela Dixon) and the cult’s kickass leader Ker (Phoebe Robinson-Galvin) are also women. Sam may feel that he should be the hero of this story and in the end “get the girl”, but as Ren points out to him, “Dude, you’re the sidekick.” Likewise the deportation of aliens comes with a special resonance in the age of Brexit and Trump. Jennifer and her colleague Agent Joe Washbourn (Andy Gibbins), ostensibly defenders of human values, are also keen proponents of external rendition and torture, while the cultists are evn more disrespectful to their god – and Erebus, feared by all, just wants to return to his similarly exiled lover. So there is a messy morality at play here, with our sympathies constantly confounded. Mostly, though, this is a love letter to a bygone decade and to the visionary filmmakers who were its elder gods.

Black Site was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.