The Blackout Experiments
This documentary follows a group of people who discover the ultra-scary, psycho-sexual horror experience Blackout, and develop an obsession that hijacks their lives and blurs the line between reality and paranoid fantasy.
July 22, 2016
The Blackout Experiments is a feature-length documentary, following several devoted (obsessed?) customers of the intense and interactive survival experience, known as Blackout. The experience is far more than a haunted house. There is physical contact — sometimes of a sexual nature. The operators/creators of the events require personal information which can and will be used against you once you enter their hands. In theory, it sounds like a legitimate psychological challenge for the participants. But based on what we see in the film, it looks pretty darn vanilla.
Director Rich Fox takes us into the lives of many seemingly damaged people who are first-timers and their journey into full-fledged Blackout-aholics. Russell Eaton is the film’s central focus.
What really stood out to me about The Blackout Experiments, are my own personal thoughts on such an event. Obviously, any documentary filmmaker worth his/her salt will be able to incite a strong debate – with so many sides to the issues represented in their film. And that’s exactly what Fox did.
Look, the film is flawlessly done as far as documentaries go. We get real insight into these people, and the reactions caught on camera are true and sometimes terrifying. Of note is Russell’s reaction to some devastating news – near the end of the film. It had to be pure gold to director Fox, to capture such an emotionally true and richly entertaining moment (it’s captured in the photo directly below). It’s the end-all capper to plenty of genuine scenes from this group of people – perfectly cementing all that the film is about. On that note, the film eventually shows the levels to which the customers and the operators are willing to go to achieve a greater high. This is a film about addiction.
I had plenty of time to chat with Rich during our time together at Filmquest, and he himself experienced Blackout. As his time in Blackout didn’t have the same effect on him as on his film’s subjects, I believe he was a perfect fit to explore the topic and be totally objective about it. But one must ponder – it intrigued Fox enough to propel him forward to completion on a project all about it. So something must have clicked.
During our discussion at breakfast one morn, my husband brought up the idea that this is a “straight person’s” thing. Allow me to elaborate. Perhaps too much information (but this is all part of the interesting debate the film sparked), but as gay men, we’ve seen plenty of gay pornography with S&M and humiliation at its core. I’m not personally into that, but I’ve seen it on the screen in “fantasy” scenarios. Not to say that straight people are uneducated in such things (dominatrixes, etc.), but in the gay world, things like this are just not shocking. And I think that is why the film’s subject matter didn’t resonate. It was all just so ridiculous and everyday. However, show this film to someone in Peoria (isn’t that the end-all, be-all of conservative benchmarks?) and I can see someone being truly disturbed by The Blackout Experiments. It’s all about perspective.
And again, this means that the filmmaker has done his job. For any film – and certainly for documentaries – people will come at it from such a vast array of histories/backgrounds/family life, etc.. For the sake of Fox, his crew and his subjects, I hope this film continues to incite such debates.
So the debate continues on. I can see wanting to be tested to within an inch of your limitations (participants are given a safe-word), but this doesn’t seem the way for me. During the entire screening – when Russell and his co-participants would be in the process of being berated (sometimes while they were nude), I found myself continually saying, “Gimme a break.” This “threat” was no more terrifying to me than the actors in so many haunted houses who moonlight in these darkened rooms whenever they’re not working their local Rennaissance Fair. There’s a weird air of lacking in acting quality from performers of this ilk. I often compare it to the awkwardness of children who were home-schooled. It’s a social weirdness which comes out in performances like this – feeling like these actors take it all too seriously – like they’re trying to hard. Does that make any sense?
And seeing that from the get-go when we went inside Blackout – well, I couldn’t get past it. And no matter how many times the actors in Blackout said, “F***” or “I’m gonna get you”, or whatever – it never got a rise out of me.
Rich explained that there was an early cut of the film where the two men responsible for this phenomenon remained very much anonymous. I think that the reveal of them in this current version was a mistake. The mystery is lost with their final on-camera interview. Sure, keep the random footage of them prepping and during the actual experiences (they’re masked while in the actual Blackout), but sitting them down and chatting frankly about why and how and when, etc.? Nope. The guys were completely unintimidating, and any pseudo-reservations I may have had seeing the film (see above), are now concrete, “I will never do this.”
Which is why it’s so fascinating to see Fox following these people who are so totally into it. Rather than the intended effect of “This thing is terrifying and I’m not sure I would ever do it”, I was more intrigued by the mental state of the participants. What brought you to this place and like any other addiction – why you? Why now? How far will you go? That’s the true point of interest in The Blackout Experiments. – the people falling into this addiction trap, not the experience itself.
Truth be told, I went into The Blackout Experiments with high hopes of a knock-down, drag-out, get under your skin experience. I had heard tell of comparisons to the horror mockumentary Lake Mungo (which I love), but disappointingly, The Blackout Experiments never reached that level of “disturbed”. But that’s a very subjective viewpoint. The lack of engagement on my part was to do with the subject matter, not the filmmaking.
But – here I am still talking about it, still thinking about it and now recommending it – to everyone from all backgrounds. Challenge yourself. Watch the film and enter the debate.
The Blackout Experiments was nominated for several awards at this year’s Filmquest including Best Documentary and Best Editing. It won for Best Documentary Film.
The Blackout Experiments was also an Official Selection at this year’s Sundance. It opens on July 22nd.