Directed by John E Seymore
Of the many experiments in horror films, including the time a demented surgeon fashioned a chain of people joined mouth to anus, the one in Human Zoo is possibly the most pointless. John E Seymore’s latest is about a reality TV show, called Solitary Confinement, in which participants stay in a small cell by themselves, allegedly being watched by numerous people. They compete to see who can hack it for the longest, and take home a prize of one million dollars. Think of it as like Big Brother with its only fun part – housemates fighting – taken out. How far can a person push themselves for the big bucks?
First, we meet the would-be contestants via two different sets of interviews. Not that it matters, but the only one I recognised was Jessica Cameron, who made the wickedly enjoyable Truth Or Dare in 2013 (not to be confused with the Blumhouse one). They’re made up of the usual array you’d expect from reality shows: severely over/under-confident, arrogant, aggressive, smug, punk rock, hypersexual, naïve, downright weird or tragically competing to cover a loved one’s medical expenses. Climax successfully used a similar format, to explore motivations, relationships and ease audiences into voguing: something they may have minimal experience of. In contrast, Human Zoo uses a highly familiar subject matter and leans lazily on tired tropes from the start. A few minutes later, the unlucky ones (almost all) are accepted, then out comes the director, to unconvincingly intellectualise what’s to follow. It will, claims, be about testing their will to go on. From there, burly security guards threaten contestants into stripping and showering in a needlessly long sequence laden with racist dialogue and the threat of sexual violence. Then it is off to their cells for the next 80 minutes or so.
Towards the end, a character yells “I don’t understand – what is this for?” It’s a fair question – what point the filmmakers are attempting to make is obscured. Human Zoo may be a parallel for sadism on reality TV – in which case, contestants being unable to leave spoils the metaphor. Alternatively, it could be about how animals get mistreated in nin-human zoos – in which case, constants applying to be on in the first place spoils the metaphor. We also get message-style bits where characters look at the camera and say things like “you’re watching this motherfuckers”: presumably a knowing comment on voyeurism. Yet this kind of clichéd “aren’t you sadistic for watching the film we’ve made” shtick requires it to be more bitingly satirical, like Funny Games, or gratuitously violent, like the Saw series. The audience should be challenged not to find it thrilling – think Stanford Prison with us as the guards. There’s little danger of that happening here though, given the most exciting part of Human Zoo is how dull it is.
There was a moment, about an hour in when it dawned on me I was barely halfway through, and I had to fight the urge not to watch at 1.5 speed. I decided not to, as it’d be unprofessional – a term that’s humorously mild when used by ones of the guys about ninety minutes in. Not that I’d have missed much if I had. Once everyone starts breaking down (the women snap early, while the men mostly soldier on), Human Zoo becomes mind-numbingly repetitive. Simply watching fragmented scenes of people weeping, screaming, doing yoga, talking to themselves and shitting is an endurance test for contestants and audience alike. It isn’t tense, as we know what’ll happen from an early stage. Unfortunately, it isn’t entertaining or intelligent either – just vaguely unpleasant. The closest to any flick I’ve seen has come to fulfilling the torture porn label. It’s the sort of film that defies the three-act tradition, with each act delineated by the running time rather than escalation or momentum.
A structureless approach could be ok if the characters were at least enjoyable to be around, but they aren’t. I’ll give Seymore the benefit of the doubt, and assume he wanted us to start off cold to them, which is something his fixed camera style helps with – even if it sometimes gets ditched without explanation. However, with zero changes to the story beyond the opening 25 minutes, then they should be rounded enough to keep us going in the absence of plot. The issue is that we never really get to know them well since they get introduced as stereotypes, and have similar trajectories once the pressure starts. It’s not so much that you’ll forget about the after as much as you’ll forget about them when they aren’t on screen, and their reactions bleed into each other. It sounds as if the making of is more interesting than the movie itself. Seemingly, there were over a hundred hours of footage captured, and the first cut was over fourteen hours. Which is impressive as the original script was a mere nine pages. This discrepancy implies a fairly organic process, with Seymore and cast members building their scenes from the ground up. Still, the lack of arcs is perhaps what lets Seymore end the movie abruptly, without resolution. A final middle finger to the viewers who have hung on that far.
My friends often think it must be fun to write negative reviews. They picture me gleefully pouring over my laptop, half-drunk, thinking of ways to make a year of someone’s life sound like a waste of time. I assure you, I’d much rather be in a position to champion everything I see. Not least because these take a while to write, so including watching it I reckon about three and a half hours of my day has been occupied by Human Zoo. More importantly, horror is a huge part of my life, and I prefer trying to convince people it should be a big part of theirs. I also dislike bad-mouthing low budget films, which this one clearly is – what we see of the TV studio looks like a living room. Some will like it for being experimental. Perhaps they may applaud for ironically using its patience-testing form to immerse them in it the situation. As much as I’m not going to be apologetic for the opinions I hold, nor will I pretend they’re any more valid than others. Yet in the eight years that I’ve been writing for this site, Human Zoo is probably the single worst film I’ve reviewed. A cynical, tedious effort that’ll leave you desperate to be released from it. Ironically, the biggest losers will be those who last the longest.