Guinea Pigs


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Guinea Pigs
"For all the quality of the performances, it's the story that lets it down."

Somewhere near you there is a building. That building is like a thousand other buildings, the kind of glass and concrete structure that is equally boring when it's around the corner from an airport, five minutes' drive from an arterial route, a short tram-ride from the city centre, near the grounds of a prestigious (albeit red-brick) University.

ProSyntrex have such a facility, the Limebrook Medical Clinic, wood-panelled in places with one of those afterthought fire-escapes, the kind mass-produced in the steelyard one sometimes glimpses out of the windows of the 07:53 express train. It's got brick-paved parking spaces, hedges that verge on the ornamental, and for the next two weeks, seven new residents.

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It's Adam we ride with initially, Adam whose satnav can't find the address. He picks up Joni, also headed for the trial, and there follows a succession of short introductory moments, the kind of character one-twos that script-writing workshops demand. Seven in all. Adam, who is optimistic and Joni, who smiles, Rafi, who's nervous and here for the money, Carmen, who's a party girl, Katie, who's a journalist, Morty, who's irascible and lecherous in the corner, and Jerome, who is a wanker. Not just judgementally; a 22-year-old estate-agent who goes by "Jed" with a beach body, bleached hair and a tribal tattoo, but were we in doubt the script has him ask if masturbation is permitted during the trial. One assumes that had the budget allowed, his personal-number-plated BMW would be in the carpark.

So we're introduced to them all, they introduce themselves to each other, they are introduced to the drug they'll be trialling - it's called Pro9 - and then they traipse down a corridor to get the initial 2mg injection. The trial is double-blind - not even the medical staff know who is getting the new drug, and it seems that nobody even knows what it does. We'll find out though, and soon enough. Before that, each of the seven Guinea Pigs enters a small room, talks to the nurse, talks to the doctor, staggered intervals of further introductions. That's four separate opportunities for the cast and script to demonstrate characterisation, and if it sounds like it's mechanical and laboured, that's because it is. Not without good moments, that's important, but this doesn't feel like organic development - more like factory-farming.

Anyway, there's a "farmer's daughter" reference - it's a term that 'lab rats' use for regular female volunteers, of which Joni is one, from 'pharma', 'pharmacology'. She's sweet on Adam, whose brief bottom corner biography reveals his age and that he's "post-graduate", though we never learn of what, and so there's an imminent little bit of romantic sub-plot, and everything starts to feel as though there are big outlines with numbers in them and the paint is being neatly applied. Then things start to go off the rails.

To the proper benefit of the film, however, as Pro9's effects start to be felt, things start to go wrong, to go outwith the ordinary, and that extends to what the film is doing. It's a scary medical facility in the middle of nowhere and something is going very wrong. The doors are locked and people are going missing and then... there's a lot of talking. For sure, there's blood, silhouettes, banging and screaming but there are also really good moments where neither we nor the characters know what's going to happen, where we know that some of them have had Pro9 and that Pro9 will do something to them, but we don't know what, or to whom, or even when.

That ambiguity, that lack of ability to trust strangers, the shouting and the worrying and the desperate figuring out, a mixture of muddied agendas and misplaced priorities and a continuous creeping uncertainty - that's the best part. It's tense and thrilling, but then it loses its nerve.

We get resolution, eventually, but not to everything - the coda leaves a haunting question we can't answer from the information provided. Then it manages to thump in what looks suspiciously like a moral, an obvious and clumsy one, and veer back into pablum.

As Adam, Aneurin Barnard is good, equal parts concern and desperation. Alex Reid's Joni is more knowing, wiser, and the fondness that develops between them in their brief time together is enough to cast some doubt on who's likely to be 'final girl'. Steve Evets was brilliant in The Cull, and he's good here too as Morty, veering from counseller to angry patriarch to doom-sayer with equal aplomb. Nia Roberts manages the conflict of becoming involved too deeply in her own story in the role of Katie. Amit Shah's Arif is a bundle of nerves, Skye Lourie, as Carmen, manages a perfect deadpan when enthusing over the "retro technology" of a miniDisc player, and Oliver Coleman's Jed is, well, great - a perfect combination of performance and script to make someone equally hateful and sympathetic.

For all the quality of the performances, it's the story that lets the film down. When it's working, it manages to synthesise a mood of dread, and for the minimal nature of the stunts and special effects (in particular Paul Hyett's makeup work) it should be commended. Sadly, it isn't quite minimal enough.

Limebrook looks as if it belongs on a "development corridor", but the film feels as though it ought to have been given another pass in the workshop. There are good moments: Morty's fear that if Pro9 is a psycho-active drug the consequences are "anything the human mind can imagine", a tremendously composed final shot that's reminiscent of R, some lovely close corridor shots thanks to Stuart Bentley - but that's not enough to save it. These are exceptional highlights because they stray from formula, but too often the film falls back on them. Less is more, as they say, but in the end we're given too much - answers that we didn't need, patterns that would have been stronger if disrupted, what could have been a sucker-punch if it weren't so blatantly telegraphed.

When it works, Guinea Pigs shows a certain deftness, a scurrying and commendable intensity, but when it doesn't it's more like a hamster in a wheel - lots of effort, but going nowhere.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2012
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Guinea Pigs packshot
A group of test subjects are given a new drug but things don't go quite to plan.
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Director: Ian Clark

Writer: Ian Clark

Starring: Aneurin Barnard, Alex Reid, Oliver Coleman, Steve Evets, Nia Roberts, Amit Shah, Skye Lourie

Year: 2012

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2012

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