Redwood and Pandorica director Tom Paton combines action, science fiction thrills and drama with a darkly-lit, slow burn tinge to the pacing in Black Site, his third feature film now hailing from Airpick Pictures and Tom Paton Film. Relatively modest in budget with an apt creative approach that makes an effort toward a bigger scope and scale at times, the performances are largely solid with a strong lead in actress and martial artist Samantha Schnitzler who carries her feature debut lead role with impressiveness and wit, and the necessary screenfighting chops to boot.
From the start of opening credits, the score alone gives you the feeling of a paranormal sci-fi that pays homage to shows and films of the 1980s. Bits of nostalgia continue just a little more as the film progresses toward its modern day-set narrative, centering Paton’s H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tale on a remote facility in the woods that has remained since the 1980s as the rise of shapless, body-snataching beings known as Elder Gods emerged as a clear and present threat to mankind. To combat this threat, that very facility, Artemis, was built as the ultimate, secure and very secret gateway to deport these supernatural beings back into deep space suing ancient symbols, incantations and precise chants.
Black Site introduces us to Ren Reid, a woman traumatized from childhood by Erebus, the Elder God that murdered her parents – also Black Site agents themselves. Twenty years later and having taken after her parents, she’s earned her stripes as a hard-edged, no-frills Black Site agent herself, albeit now with the goal of one day becoming a field operative despite her repeatedly failing attempts. Static images of the paranormal add to the burden of her fractured psyche next to her frustration with career myopia, although it seems the wait may have well been worth it.
Upon getting word of Erebus’ capture, Ren is reported as escort for the arrival of Sam Levy (Mike Beckingham), talkative and mildly despondent from a break-up already in-progess and who more or less couldn’t be bothered with being black-bagged amid transport to carry out his assignment as the nearest-qualified deportation officer available. With Erebus in custody and Black Site senior officials Jen (Angela Dixon) and Ren’s extenuantly closest friend and confidant, high-ranking Black Site agent Jay (Bentley Kalu) overseeing Erebus’ interrogation, they press him for the location of another Elder God. Little do they know that their long-running and supposedly secure facility has been penetraged by a dogged, murderous cult bent on freeing and reclaiming their idol, Erebus, for their own nefarious purposes.
Led by the dual sword-wielding half-blind Ker (Phoebe Robinson-Galvin), the Cult Of Erebus make their way into the Black Site, ultimately cornering Ren and Sam into the biggest fight for their lives. As Erebus awaits his fate, Ren’s symptoms only grow stronger and more crippling as this may be the one and only lifelong chance she has at confronting her parents’ supernatural murderer once and for all.
There are a lot of missing visual parts to Paton’s sci-fi world-building affair in Black Site, some of which might have been more suited to add to further make the story more stimulating where it could. The performaces by supporting cast make the film worthwhile in most cases, serving the necessary empathy required to help energize our interest in these characters. Ren and Jay share an admirable and clearly cohesive friendship that plays strongly amidst the film’s character development, whereas Ren’s screentime with the disquieted Sam bodes as a little less meritorious overtime; Sam’s entry pans out as a bit dissonant and less charming upon his entry into the film. As the film moves forward and the two meet, Ren is a little more concerned at first with establishing dominance at the expense of Sam’s own ills and hang-ups. It’s not really until the facility’s security upends and they have to rely on each other for survival that the levity increases somewhat.
Angela Dixon’s Jen shepherds the on-site authority over the facility and shares a few of the film’s best lines in her principal scene with Jay opposite the captured Erebus, embodied in the corpse of a criminal named Jerome played by actor Kris Johnson. From there, Black Site tends to make arduous work of its world-building. The film’s contained setting, low-lighting and quiet, calm millieu and monotone dialogue provide a mix of things that are both fitting for the film’s purpose and intent, but otherwise make the film a challenge to watch. If anything, however, what you might draw most from this is the constant teetering and testing of angst depicted in the psychological warfare between Jen, Jay, and the enigmatic Erebus, whose being is that of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity whose existence is one that resides beyond time and all things trivial and human. Despite having to stay in one place with low-light to providing the brooding shroud that covers his face along with the respite surges of electricity his body emits from time to time, Johnson does his best to work with what he has.
The ever-reliant action fleets in its excitement between broken fight scene exchanges and abbreviated cinematography. Choreography from stunt coordinator Marc Johnston has an appeal to it, though there’s only so much the lensing accomplishes in this venture that it’s difficult to get the most out of the action as one would hope, and it’s not as if to aid the performers, specifically our key actresses. Schnitzler’s performance in Keir Siewert’s battle-of-the-sexes action drama short, Duchess, was an ample cinematic demonstration of some of her capabilities. Robinson-Galvin’s own screenfighting prowess is on sheer display in Jean Paul-Ly’s directorial pilot proof, The Division. Both of these were aided by good, if not great cinematography and stunt coordination.
The lensing in Black Site isn’t too cluttered that it can’t balance itself between close-ups quintessential wide shots, but the often unengaging mechanics of the camera’s use can prove crippling for the action. There are some grievances regarding the editing as well, and with specific attention to our female heroine and villainess. The cutaways do more harm than good when we finally see these two forces of nature clash in the two fight scenes they’re featured in, and it’s a mistake that movies make way too often when trying to recapitulate in the course of what’s normally supposed to be an exiciting, big scale third act. It works for some films provided the right strategy is adopted, and unfortunately for an oftentimes slow-moving, world-building, cerebral sci-fi like Black Site, it simply doesn’t.
Paton’s use of Lovecraftian lore is greatly accomodated by his synonymous use of Greek mythology. The film is set in a building named after a Greek goddess, overseen by a female authority and with the crux of its narrative founded in female-centric good vs. evil largely within its main arc. It also speaks with relevance to Ren’s own character development apart from the varied etymology of her name which also provides a bit of understanding to her idiosyncratic nature, and there are definitely more sprinkles of this throughout the film.
For all of Ren’s flaws and imperfections, there’s definitely something to pick up on after Black Site. I wouldn’t say this film wasn’t entirely frustrating, mainly seeing as a lot of what’s suggestively implied doesn’t really help the film live-up to its world-building potential next to its ample action talent. As for Ren, hers is a tale I would particularly enjoy seeing in continuation. She’s definitely not the sidekick of this mind-being psychological sci-fi venture, and Schnitzler emits this fact crystal clear with a performance caliber that conveys gravitas, as well as readiness for the next big possible step. At best and with any luck should there be interest, one hopes it will be a better sequel.