Sundance Film Review: ‘The Blackout Experiments’

Rich Fox's documentary follows several individuals obsessed by a real-life 'immersive horror' experience.

Russell Eaton, Bob Glouberman, Abel Horwitz, Allison Fogarty, Andrew Gallagher, Hannah Kaplan, Jennifer Booher, Omar Hanson, Casey Schendel, Jacob Odenberg, Jessica Sava, Stephen McCoy, Edriana Hiu, Gladys Santiago, John Anderson IV, Natalia Zamapini, Muzam Agha, Mike Fontaine.

Official Site: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=the+blackout+experiments+imdb&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

An intriguing if less-than-full investigation, “The Blackout Experiments” looks at several repeat participants in an activity many would pay not to experience: an “immersive horror” show individually tailored to play on their deepest fears and insecurities, utilizing tactics that can encompass established torture techniques. (Hence the legal waiver they’re required to sign first.) The creators of these Blackout events cooperated with Rich Fox’s documentary to an extent but, for the sake of maintaining their mystique, declined to be interviewed, so a number of basic questions go under answered here. What “Experiments” does expose is the always puzzling if not-uncommon need for some people to invite fear and pain — within limits. This sole documentary in Sundance’s 2016 Midnight section packs just enough curiosity value to court minor theatrical and slightly wider home-format sales.

Blackout’s creators, Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, apparently started creating these “shows” 12 years ago, though that’s not in the film. Nor are any details about their working methods, how the project has evolved over that time, or even how much it costs to sign on. What we do glean is that potential participants have to fill out a questionnaire asking numerous personal details, and then, if accepted, are given the address of a secret, oft-changing location just the night before their appointment. Upon arriving, they’re typically yanked inside an empty commercial space temporarily “blacked out” with plastic tarp, where they are blindfolded or gagged, and generally manhandled. The disorienting experience is different for all (and different each time for repeaters), but can encompass forced nudity, verbal abuse, restraints, brief suffocation, even waterboarding.

For many, this is probably just one more thrill-junkie extreme to check off the bucket list. (Blackout has held its events irregularly in New York and Los Angeles for some time now, accruing a cult following and reputation.) But for the half-dozen or so regulars that Fox focuses on, it provides a confrontation with the “dark side” that can be variably traumatizing, therapeutic and addictive — or all the above at once. It’s often hard to tell whether they’re facing their fears or masochistically reveling in them. (Nor are they sure about that themselves.) Though these folks are actually paying money to see how far they can “test what (they’re) capable of enduring,” psychologically and otherwise, one young man is furious when he thinks they’ve gone too far with him. He protests “This isn’t a haunt, this is abuse,” scoffing that it’s just a glorified form of S&M.

On the other hand, several others are even more upset when they’re given an “ultimatum” and made to promise that this is their last Blackout — the idea being, presumably, that they have already faced their limits and can now go forward with their lives as healthier, happier beings. It would be interesting to have a mental-health expert or two weigh in on that (one participant’s wife is indeed a therapist who does not approve of his Blackout obsession), but “Experiments” doesn’t step outside its narrow purview enough for such outside analysis. The result is interesting enough, but feels a bit overextended at feature length considering the limited insight afforded.

Holding many of his own interviews in near-complete blackness, and allowed some access to the clients’ Blackout trips (plus surveillance-type footage shot by the organizers during each “show”), Fox does his best to reproduce a credibly nerve-jangling experience for the viewer, though it’s just not very scary to watch as a secondhand observer. Pic is well assembled, particularly in the editorial department, and boasts an original score (commingled with the Blackout events’ own sound designs) whose creepy atmospherics and sonic jolts would work very well in a regular fictive horror film.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'The Blackout Experiments'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 28, 2016. Running time: 81 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Ferocious Entertainment production. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Kris Curry., Rob Brodersen, Angelique Perez. Co-producer, Michael J. Pepin.

Crew: Directed by Rich Fox. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Michael J. Pepin; Michael J. Pepin; editor, Fox; music, James Clements; music supervisor, Steven Gizicki; sound, Martin Talty, Blue Heimbach, Chris de la Fuente, Jerry Stein; sound designer/re-recording mixer/supervising editor, John Warrin.

With: Russell Eaton, Bob Glouberman, Abel Horwitz, Allison Fogarty, Andrew Gallagher, Hannah Kaplan, Jennifer Booher, Omar Hanson, Casey Schendel, Jacob Odenberg, Jessica Sava, Stephen McCoy, Edriana Hiu, Gladys Santiago, John Anderson IV, Natalia Zamapini, Muzam Agha, Mike Fontaine.

More Film

  • Rob Schneider'The Week Of' film premiere,

    Film News Roundup: Rob Schneider Wins SAG-AFTRA National Board Seat

    In today’s film news roundup, Rob Schneider wins a SAG-AFTRA board seat; “Badland,” “Sorry We Missed You” and “Extracurricular” find homes; and “The Shawshank Redemption” gets a re-release.  SAG-AFTRA Rob Schneider has won a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Schneider won a four-year term [...]

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

  • Spider-Man Could Leave the Marvel Cinematic

    Spider-Man Could Leave MCU if Disney, Sony Can't Reach Financing Deal

    Disney’s Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures have hit an impasse on new financing terms for upcoming Spider-Man movies, sources have told Variety. If a deal cannot be reached, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will not produce future Spider-Man films, effectively removing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reps for Disney, Marvel and Sony [...]

  • Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality

    Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality in Film and TV

    Screen Australia, Australia’s federal film and TV funding body, has made sufficient progress in furthering gender equality that it has set more ambitious targets. The organization has exceeded its long-term Gender Matters key performance indicator, with 56% of projects receiving production funding having at least half of the key creative roles occupied by women, based [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content