This is installment six in our “Psychotronic Cinema” series. (What is psychotronic cinema?).
There exists a veritable subgenre of horror-thrillers (truly, there are dozens and dozens of these things) where the premise involves some form of gamified scenario centering around torturous or otherwise deadly scenarios. The trend blew up following the massive success of the Saw franchise (a franchise also responsible for popularizing the torture porn film), but it did not begin here. It also saw a recent unlikely revival with the surprise success of Squid Game in 2021.
Series 7: The Contenders is something like a working class, non-science fiction Running Man. Or a non-science fiction The Hunger Games, years before those books were published. It is murder codified into reality television. A show (seven seasons running) randomly selects citizens in a town and pits them against each other in a game of life or death, kill or be killed. Literally. The film portrays the reality TV format fairly realistically, not just in its formal construction and occasional cuts to bumpers, but also in its narrative construction. Elements of the plot, such as one contestant having a history with the show’s returning champion, come off like producer-generated drama for the sake of a show that might be losing its luster after many seasons.
This returning champion, Dawn (Brooke Smith), also happens to be eight and a half months pregnant. The show uses her past kills to its advantage, at one point rolling a montage of them between interviews with the other contestants attesting to her cold-bloodedness. But we also see early on her conflicted feelings, with her old acquaintance Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald) but also with Tony (Michael Kaycheck), whose role in the competition tears his family apart. With a baby on the way and estrangement from her own family, Dawn is tested more by the humanity of her fellow contestants than by their homicidal capabilities.
Meanwhile, teenager Lindsay (Merritt Wever) wants to succeed in the competition to earn the love and respect of her parents. Jeff, suffering from late-stage testicular cancer, decides to wait for death rather than participate in the game. Connie (Marylouise Burke) is a seemingly mild mannered nurse but proves to have the most virulent bloodlust of the lot. And Franklin (Richard Venture) is also around.
Series 7 is deceptively adept in its design. It is as rough around the edges as one might expect from a super low-budget indie from a first-time director. But its ruggedness fits its tone and adds a grittiness that really works in the film’s favor. There is also the attention paid to the “archival footage” the show uses to introduce or deepen the characters’ backstories, which have great attention to detail. The high school class project set to a Joy Division song is particularly funny (shades of Meshes of the Afternoon…the kids showed promise). Even the title sequence of the show is cleverly put together.
The writer-director, Daniel Minahan, has gone on to have a successful career in television, fittingly enough. Some heavy hitter shows, too. Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Blood, Homeland. He won an Emmy for American Crime Story. The closest he’s come to another film is Deadwood: The Movie (which I hear is very good; Deadwood is on my watchlist). In any case, his debut feature is quite accomplished, and it remains an underground favorite.
Series 7 is not in The Psychotronic Video Guide, but the similar The Running Man is (page 477).
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)