11th Oct2021

Grimmfest 2021: ‘The Beta Test’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe, Virginia Newcomb, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Grace Applegate, Jessie Barr, Christian Hillborg, Malin Barr, Jaqueline Done, Wilky Yau | Written and Directed by Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe

A married Hollywood agent, played by co-writer and co-director Jim Cummings, receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter and becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data…

Cummings, the independent film maker, behind Thunder Road and The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, takes a swing at the very industry he works in with The Beta Test. A film the resurrects the erotic thriller genre, so prevalent during the 80s and 90s when the likes of Harvey Weinstein rose in the Hollywood ranks, and skews it through the lens of the #metoo movement, the internet age and calls out the toxic masculinity of both the genre AND Hollywood itself.

The Beta Test also takes massive swipes at the industry of Hollywood – in particular the idea of “packaging deals” in which agents get huge payouts for arranging the creative team behind a particular project. That real-life situation came to a head this year when the WGA took action against such deals and agents that perpetuate them, creating acrimony in Hollywood between the money men and the creatives. Of course Cummings and co-writer/co-director PJ McCabe view the circumstances through a skewed lens giving the situation an American Psycho-esque twist, with Cummings character Jordan feeling very much in the same vein at that films Patrick Bateman. A man who will use, abuse and generally step on people to get what he wants, when he wants. A personality trait that leaves him wide open to the situation he finds himself in. When all you think about is yourself, what’s best for you and what satisfies you, it’s easy to forget that things have consequences for others in your life too.

The Beta Test is an incredibly unflattering look at the machinations of Hollywood and could really only be made by a truly independent filmmaker such as Cummings. It’s also something of a dichotomy. On the one hand the situation is played for laughs, with the script playing up the dark humour of both the agency lifestyle and the predicament Jordan finds himself in. On the other hand there are brutal scenes of murder – one both in the opening and another midway through the film, that feel almost jarringly out of place. But then, looking back on the erotic thriller genre, wasn’t that very much how they played out back then too? A short shark shock to hook you in, something of a detective story following and then everything neatly wrapped up in the end. The only thing missing from the cliches of the genre in The Beta Test is the T&A which would eventually over-saturate erotic thrillers, making them more about the former than the latter. Though its fair to say Cummings film doesn’t QUITE wrap things up neatly at then end…

There’s also an interesting discussion on changing ideologies here too, with the very notion of power-shifting explored both in terms of Hollywood and the power struggle that is still taking place post-Harvey Weinstein; and in terms of how people feel like they’re losing control in their lives – be it to other people or more ephemeral things like the internet. In this case it’s an alpha male losing what power he THOUGHT he had to all of the above – and we, the audience, see it all spiral out of control in a brilliantly dark black comedy.

**** 4/5

The Beta Test screened as part of this years Grimmfest.

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