I’d love to say I hate reality television, but I’d be lying through my teeth. As a matter of fact, during the summer months, when my favorite scripted series are in hiatus, most of my viewing time is dedicated to all manner of unscripted dreck, ranging from melodramatic cooking competitions to investigative reports about midget hoarders who eat dryer sheets. Since the dawn of Survivor and Big Brother, the voyeuristic sensibilities of reality television have made for a popular thematic element in horror films. Once again, this fertile ground is tapped for terror in After Dark Originals’ latest offering, The Task.
The film opens with the abduction of a group of young individuals by a gang of masked, gun-and-camera-toting individuals who handcuff them together, place pig head masks over their heads, and dump them on the outskirts of a derelict prison. There, the abductees learn that their kidnapping was actually a twisted ruse to inform that they’d each been selected to take part in a reality series they’d previously auditioned for called The Task. The archetypal contestants are then introduced via the magic of freeze frame, title cards, and snippets from their audition tapes. There’s material girl Shoe (Ashley Mulheron); streetwise Dixon (Texas Battle); the brainy-yet-sexy Toni (Amara Karan); the-gay-as-all-get-out Randall (Marc Pickering); and bratty Brit siblings Angel (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and Stanton (Tom Payne).
This motley crew has been hand-picked for The Task’s inaugural episode, with our contestants each vying for a $20,000 dollar prize for spending the night inside the aforementioned prison, and completing a series of spooktacular tasks (hence the show’s title) modeled around the prison’s predictably sordid past. It seems that, way back in its glory days, the prison’s power mad warden (Valentin Ganev) got his jollies by condemning dozens of prisoners to death, which, ultimately, led to his own execution behind these very same walls. The show’s producer, Connie (Alexandra Staden), has outfitted the prison with dozens of cameras to catch every minute of the action, but, when a stranger appears onscreen – a bald, shirtless man who bears a striking resemblance to the notorious warden – her techs assure her it’s a network stunt to test her mettle. Soon, however, Connie realizes that what she’s seeing is no joke, and she must convince the stubborn contestants to relinquish their potential prize money and get out of their pronto.
The Task is a well-acted, generally well-made little flick that that’s actually more dark satire than traditional horror film. Much of the running time is spent poking fun at the conventions of the reality television series, and the generally callous nature of the “Hollywood” types who mastermind them. For example in one scene, the show’s seemingly horrified host, Taylor (Adam Raynor) berates Connie about withholding an appalling tidbit about the prison’s past, only to point out how great it would have played in the ratings. Later, as the vengeful spirit of the warden dispatches two of the contestants, Connie and her techs feign shock as they play to the cameras mounted in their own production vehicle, playing along with what they assume is a last-minute network decision to spice up the series. These are people who come from a place where artifice, greed, and exploitation are the norm. They live in a world of make-believe, and wouldn’t know reality if it bitch-slapped them in the face. What they do know, however, are ratings, and they’ll do anything to get them. Even when Connie does finally realize that something is very, very wrong inside the prison, she’s reluctant to act, going so far as to check in with the network suits before deciding to let Taylor and one of the techs check it out (with cameras in tow, of course).
While The Task works marginally well as an amusing satire, as a horror film…well…not so much. It’s not scary in the least, nor is it particularly gory. Frankly, it’s something we’ve seen dozens of times before; the prototypical “spend the night in the haunted house” story, but with a reality T.V. gimmick and an antagonist that looks like G. Gordon Liddy in an S&M bar. Director, Alex Orwell, does his best to keep things creepily claustrophobic and atmospheric, but the horror element of the film is so predictable that he can't generate any real sense of tension or surprise.
Lionsgate brings After Dark Originals’ The Task to DVD with a solid 1.78:1 transfer that holds up quite well under the heavy load of dark and shadowy environs. Some of the colors in the spectrum are a touch muted to go along with the film’s post-Saw aesthete, but what’s there is vibrant and accurate. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is clear and expressive, and offers up some nice surround effects, strong bass, and crisp dialogue.
Bonus features include a short behind-the-scenes featurette, the film’s theatrical trailer, and extended trailer’s for the After Dark Originals series.
The Task treads familiar ground, but I had fun with it. The script is sharp and witty, the performances are well above average for a small production such as this, and I appreciated the not-so-subtle jabs at the exploitative nature of Hollywood. It’s not going to scare a lot of folks and gorehounds will be thoroughly disappointed by the lack of plasma on display, but if you’re looking for a little light horror with some smart satire thrown in, you could do worse than The Task.