The Beta Test

PJ, intern Jaclyn and Jordan

There is no test in The Beta Test but there is a Beta – lead character Jordan (Jim Cummings), a would-be Hollywood big wheel who’s not quite got the clout of a producer or agent, because he’s more a “packager” of deals, one of those legends in his own lunchtime who secretly wants to be Harvey Weinstein, though he’s too attuned to the zeitgeist to ever let on.

Like Griffin Mill in Robert Altman’s The Player, Jordan looks impressive to people who aren’t in the know, but is less impressive to those who are. And he feels this so keenly it’s destroying him. When a potential client, an actual hotshot with money to spray about, openly grabs Jordan by the balls at a party, Jordan reacts by laughing wildly at the you-guys-ness of it all, and then goes back to his workplace to belittle the female junior. In fact before any encounter with any other person in The Beta Test, Jordan will have worked out, to an exquisite number of decimal points, the exact social standing of who he’s dealing with and adjusted his character accordingly – he can flip from sycophant to tyrant in a way that, bizarrely, recalls Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers. Perhaps it’s Cummings’s lankiness.

Cummings is also the writer and director, alongside PJ McCabe, and the two of them wrap this bracingly unpleasant and darkly funny exposé of the shitty end of LA life inside a thriller, much as The Player did in 1992, In a Lonely Place did in 1950 and Chinatown (Cummings and McCabe admit a debt) did in 1974.

But first a gruesome opening sequence in which a Swedish woman phones the cops to tell them of a “domestic incident”, even though nothing’s happened yet. Then she proceeds to tell her boyfriend that it’s over between them, ever since she had a sexual encounter with a mystery somebody in an unnamed hotel. He reacts badly – she knew he would – and there is a giallo-inspired pre-credits bit of slaughter. Cummings and McCabe have set out to throw the audience off guard – not least because the whole sequence is in Swedish – and succeeded.

Jordan and Caroline
Jordan and Caroline



On to the main event, and our hero (term used loosely), Jordan receives an invitation to go and have no-strings sex with a mystery somebody in an as-yet-unnamed hotel. All he has to do is tick a few boxes listing various sexual preferences and turn up on the day, wearing a blindfold as ordered.

In spite of the fact that he’s only six weeks away from getting married to the sweet Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), Jordan accepts, entering the crepuscular world of Hollyweird and beginning his own slo-mo collapse from the inside out. The sexual encounter is largely a Maguffin allowing Cummings and McCabe to get on screen all the awful behaviour they’ve encountered down the years working in LA’s entertainment biz and concentrating it all in Jordan, who toxically lacks integrity, is out of depth in the “packaging” game and has become so wrapped up in his own brand that he hasn’t noticed times have moved on.

Is it fun watching a bloviating try-hard shitbag fall apart in dog-eat-dog Hollywood? Of course it is. It’s also vastly entertaining watching the peccadilloes of others being turned into entertainment. Especially as Jordan is so oblivious. At a certain point Mozart’s Requiem starts up on the soundtrack and… well, you’ve got to smile.

And then Jordan decides to turn detective and find out where the mystery invitation to have no-holds sex came from, and the Maguffin is pressed into doing actual dramatic work. The exposé side of The Beta Test starts to jostle uneasily with the thriller side for dominance.

Cummings and McCabe do it all with the misogynistic, women-as-meat “male gaze” of the beta. If there’s a female in the room the camera is down her cleavage or flicking looks in her direction, all part of Jordan’s terrible but never admitted feeling of inadequacy.

McCabe I have not come across before but is an old friend of Cummings, apparently, and as co-writer and director also makes a great “normal guy” foil to the increasingly looney Jordan, as PJ, his much more grounded and business-savvy partner in packaging.

The Beta Test makes it three in a row to watch from Cummings. Alongside Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow he’s proving himself really adept at making unsettling films shot deliberately in what you might call Journeyman Hollywood Vanilla style. As if to say “howdya like them apples?”



The Beta Test – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





I am an Amazon affiliate






© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Riki Lindhome, Robert Forster, Jim Cummings, Demetrius Daniels

 

Young couple PJ and Brianne check in to a holiday cabin. They’re in love. He’s intending to propose later that evening. But before that, they go out to dinner, PJ gets on the wrong side of some local rednecks and things almost get physical. Back at the cabin, while PJ showers, Brianne is attacked and dismembered by a person or thing unknown. When the cops show up, there are body parts everywhere and Brianne’s vagina is missing.

That gruesome detail is emblematic of a film otherwise made strictly to a formula, the twist added by writer/director/star Jim Cummings lifting everything onto another plane.

This sort of thing used to happen from time to time when B movies were still being made – a gifted but hardly box office director would be given a crew who knew their shit and a week to turn something out. As long as it satisfied genre conventions, the back office was happy. And if it flopped, at least it didn’t cost much.

These days it’s the Lifetime Channel and other like it whose churn-em-out production schedules keep camera crews and lighting riggers, set dressers and make-up artists in work, and enable them refine their skills.

Superficially, from its aerial establishing shots to its set-ups in diners and gas-station forecourts, The Wolf of Snow Hollow looks like a standard-issue TV shocker. But there is that missing vagina to consider. A few minutes further along into the running time, again in an extremely familiar scenario, we are introduced to a snowboard instructor, who we understand immediately from the TMI backstory we’re being given at speed is “the next victim”. And sure enough, in no time the big bad wolf has killed her too. This time her head is missing.

 

A woman with a missing arm
How was your day, hun?

 

Is it a wolf – there are plenty in the snowy hills that surround Snow Hollow? Or a human – as rationalist cop John Marshall (Cummings) suspects?

Marshall’s fellow cops consist of his dad (Robert Forster in one of his final roles), a sick and old sheriff who will not retire and who’s good only for raising morale. As for the rest of them, trusted buddy Julia Robson (excellent Riki Lindhome) aside, they seem to consist of post-truthers convinced it’s a werewolf, or cops so lazy they want the FBI to take the case.

On top of that is the attitude of the local townsfolk towards the police. They’re dismissive, contemptuous, angry that the cops “haven’t caught him yet” – writer Cummings neatly catching the mood of the “defund the police” moment.

But what most elevates The Wolf of Snow Hollow from standard-issue grisly whodunit territory is the character of Marshall himself, a recovering alcoholic who has so much internal fury that even when he says “anger management issues” at an AA meeting he looks like he’s going to bite someone.

Marshall is furious all the time – when he’s not snarling at his wife, or railing at his daughter, he’s punching colleagues in the face or firing them for being stupid, his character acting as a kind of blackly comedic counterpoint to the ongoing slaughter. At one point he even smacks the pathologist examining a dead body.

He’s a good guy under it all, probably, though Cummings doesn’t give us an easy ride – if you saw Cummings’s portrayal of a troubled cop in Thunder Road, it’s pretty much the same guy here, except a bit smarter and a lot angrier .

You could say the same for the entire film – smart, angry and angular yet familiar enough to almost slide by unnoticed, if you weren’t paying attention. Cummings currently has The Beta Test in post-production, a horror thriller set in Hollywood. Sounds promising.

 

 

The Wolf of Snow Hollow – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020