Monday, November 2, 2015

You Spin Me Round & Round

"Strangers locked in a room and forced to kill each other" is nothing new when it comes to plot descriptions in the 21st century, but when you add a sort of Simon-esque electronic art direction and a democratically determined electro shock system, you've piqued my interest. 

Quick Plot: A varied group of 50 people awake to find themselves standing in a black room with a fancy futuristic floor light fixture spinning around. Think of it as a carnival Gravitron ride with about 75% less chance of vomit. and 85% more chance of sudden death.  

Before long, they discover that every two minutes, one person gets a brief and fatal electric shock. It's in their hands--literally--to decide who dies when, as they can signal and make a fist to vote the next victim. As you can guess, they work together, get along, form lasting friendships, and see the inner beauty inside each other.

Like many a lottery-based horror film, Circle quickly lets its characters showcase some true colors. Impressively, writing/directing team Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione balance the speedy conversations (as none can really last more than two minutes at a time) without being too overbearing in zooming in on a batch of blank slate's racism, homophobia, and other easy targeted traits. It's rare that a film like this actually makes good on its promise to zap characters before they're fully developed, but it happens here as it should.

Circle has the vibe of a Twilight Zone episode crossed with Cube, and that's a very good thing. I was sold on the premise but following the decade-ago success of a little indie called Saw, there have been a LOT of cheaply made horror films marketed on the idea of "strangers locked up in a life or death situation together." 

Let us all take a moment of silence to recall the horrors of watching Melissa Joan Hart attempt to act in the classically terrible Nine Dead.

This could easily have gone down the wrong path. Characters could have been overly shrill and simplistic, or blatantly irritating. Thankfully, Hann and Miscione are wise in balancing their rather massive cast effectively. Sure, we get a token white cop who's quick to judge anybody with dark skin and an obnoxiously corporate superman eager to exploit those around him. This isn't perfect filmmaking, but Hann and Miscione make up for the necessary lack of character development with a consistent and breezy pace. Those who enjoy a good thinker of a horror film will find plenty to enjoy.

High Points
The utter simplicity of Circle's production and sound design is pitch perfect. There are no fancy tricks or effects, just a dark room with very specific lighting and music cues. Considering we spend nearly 90 minutes in this one spot, it's a very strong feat

Low Points
Two days after watching, I think it's safe to say I finally "get" the ending, but it's so subtly executed to the point that it makes the actual first-time watch rather unsatisfying in the immediate aftermath

Lessons Learned
When your life is essentially being determined by a popularity contest, it's probably not the best time to start practicing your non-ironic Donald Trump impersonation

I've queued up many an independent horror film with a big premise and small budget to varying levels of satisfaction, but I'm pleased to say that Circle did exactly what I hoped it would do. Much like The Human Race (another indie charmer that it seems to share quite a bit in common with in terms of style and theme), Circle understands what it can and can't do in its low budget, 90 minute running time. It's something fresh, and in a genre overstuffed with standards slashers and found footage blurs, that's a very good thing.


  1. I've been circling around this one (hah!) with the suspicion that it would just piss me off if I watched it... that it would play out like an episode of Survivor with some politically correct axe to grind.
    I'm fond of the fatal game show stuff like Series 7, Cheap Thrills and 13 Sins... but this struck me as seeming way less fun than those... and maybe far too much like High School.
    Am I wrong? Scary and suspenseful are good for me, irritating and preachy just annoy.

    1. It's definitely not at the same level as Series 7 and a few steps under 13 Sins (haven't seen Cheap Thrills, so thanks for the reminder!). It's fairly heavy handed at times, but I really appreciated how it stayed disciplined to its setup. It doesn't overstay its welcome, so that's a plus. I'd say to give it a chance with fairly low expectations. And let me know if you do!

    2. Ok, watched it. Not nearly as annoying as I feared... a bit 'stagey' but that would be hard to avoid.
      Not going down as a favorite but definitely more interesting that another maniac chasing another victim through the woods.

    3. Precisely! Speaking of, have you seen The Human Race?

  2. I went and watched The Human Race... which I think is a bit more solidly entertaining than Circle, having more action and gore and character development... less speechifying (though I thought the bit with the deaf friends near the end was... unnecessary... it felt like an obvious bit of writing trickery to the sticky problem of ending up with 3 likeable people at the end).
    Like Circle I don't think I'd ever rewatch it. I'm not fond of the sort of story they tell and I'm not sure why... because nihilism and misanthropy don't bother me.

    1. I can see your issue with the extra "likable" characters. I'm a big humans-hunting-humans fan, so it's right up my alley. I really just admire how the filmmakers made the best use of their budget and also made a strong attempt to incorporate a more diverse cast of characters. Thanks for giving it a try!