I can’t help but be curious about any documentary programmed in the “midnight” section of a film festival. I’m always looking for works of nonfiction that try out different forms, and a lot of these kinds of docs aim to play like horror films and scare as much as inform. Last year’s The Nightmare is one example that proves they can actually be affective in such a manner. Unfortunately, The Blackout Experiments, which like The Nightmare debuted in the Park City at Midnight program of the Sundance Film Festival, proves they can also not be satisfying in any way.
The focus of Rich Fox’s film is an extreme participatory theater experience called Blackout. There’s not really any background given on the events, but they’re the work of Josh Randall and Kristjan Thorgeirsson (who get “created by” credits, not a “thank you” for their involvement) and are kind of next-level haunted houses in secretive New York or Los Angeles locations. Curious and/or totally masochistic people pay their money, are contacted with the address and time to arrive and, once in the door, they’re tortured and screamed at and messed with psychologically. It’s basically the equivalent of a murder mystery dinner cruise but for horror fans who wish they could be a part of the show — terrorized but not killed, obviously.
The Blackout Experiments follows a few subjects as they try the experience and become hooked. Thanks to the cooperation of Randall and Thorgeirsson, Fox is able to show us videos captured during his characters’ times at Blackout, and as an editor first and foremost (docs he has cut include A Band Called Death), he compiles it in a flashy way to convey but also amplify the intensity and disturbing nature of these scenes, perhaps in the hope of terrifying us, too. If you’re scared easily by most horror films, maybe that will work, but it had no effect on me, maybe because I got that this was all a form of entertainment for the players.
There is more to the doc, but the rest is not so much interesting as sad. The main subjects are eventually regulars who refer to themselves as “victims.” And, with encouragement from the Blackout team, they join or form support groups, which to be frank are just fan meets. But the fans take the experiences very seriously, almost traumatic in some cases, yet also as a kind of therapy. Blackout makes them confront their fears and become vulnerable in a way that should be thrilling but in a fun way. They’re not necessarily sad for seeing it as something more important, but the film portrays them as being pathetic.
The doc also treats Blackout more seriously than is necessary. Some of the subjects in the film wonder if Fox is really fully in cahoots with Randall and Thorgeirsson, and it does come off that way, only differently to us in than they mean. Fox isn’t working for Blackout to help mess with these fans but he does seem to be working for them as a promoter. It’s likely that this isn’t all just an ad for Blackout, at least not any more than a lot of docs wind up being ads for their subjects or causes. Still, the way Fox keeps Blackout as a semi-mysterious underground thing and not a well-known form of theater is rather manipulative.
The Blackout Experiments probably could have been okay as a short, even with the way it’s directed and edited to affect rather than inform. It is intriguing at first, to be honest. And the subject matter is pretty fascinating for a moment. But then it just bored me for an hour with too much of the same thing, and I wound up just wondering about Randall and Thorgeirsson’s background and whether they consult with psychologists about their tactics and how common it is for people to become addicted to the experience, as well as many other questions.
There’s a less stylized but more interesting doc to be made about the phenomenon of something like Blackout and what it does to and for people differently from passive horror entertainment. This isn’t me saying The Blackout Experiments should have been something else. I’m saying this film is simply ineffective at what it’s trying to do, and hopefully another film will come along and be that something else.