THE BETA TEST is writer/director Jim Cummings third feature film. It’s a horror satire of Hollywood and relationships. Cummings previously directed The Wolf Of Snow Hollow which has a strong thematic connection to THE BETA TEST which is the toxic behavior of men who haven’t grown up and don’t know what they want. However, this film expands the ideas a bit more into the realm of the entertainment industry and its attendant expectations and the ideas of marriage and commitment and those attendant expectations. When I think of satires that encompass horror, the list isn’t that long. Films like Get Out, Dawn Of The Dead, and The Stepford Wives come to mind. I think THE BETA TEST probably has the most in common with The Stepford Wives since it deals heavily in the politics of human relationships and marriage. There are films like The Ruling Class which are more black comedy, but I think that THE BETA TEST has more of a horror base. I will tell you that THE BETA TEST is frequently laugh-out-loud funny but still manages to shock you and there are some classic horror touches in store for you when you watch it.
Jordan (Jim Cummings) and his friend and fellow agent PJ (PJ McCabe) at APE Agency (yes, APE which looks a bit like a midlevel agency by the name of APA here in Los Angeles) are doing their jobs and seemingly princes of the agency world. One day, Jordan gets a purple envelope in the mail with a strange and enticing invitation. He is embarrassed but intrigued and hides the invite and lies to his fiancee about it. He throws it in the trash but is drawn back to it.
Once he’s gone through with the invitation, his world starts to unravel as fast as he starts to unravel.
The film was co-written and co-directed by Cummings and PJ McCabe. It starts out with a startling and shocking opening sequence. I was appalled and thrilled by it. It also stars Virginia Newcomb (The Walking Dead, The Death of Dick Long) as Caroline, Olivia Applegate (Euphoria, Song To Song) as Hotel Aphrodite, Malin Barr (Honeydew) as Annie, Christian Hillborg (The Last Kingdom) as Christian, Jacqueline Doke (Thunder Road) as Jaclyn, and Jessie Barr (Grow The F*ck Up) as Lauren.
The film works as a mystery and an examination of the pressures that we put ourselves under in trying to adhere to the rules and expectations set up by society, our families, our loved ones, and most importantly, by ourselves. As with The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, it seems like Cummings may be working some things out through his art. He is certainly unafraid of portraying another character that is charming on the surface but capable of exploding into rages whenever he is feeling threatened or insecure. The script ideas, themes, and direction are all quite well done, but where Cummings really excels is as a performer. He is adept at showing you a man who looks like he’s about to explode or tip over into a nervous breakdown if he just gets one more feather laid on his scale. It’s his aching vulnerability bubbling underneath what is seemingly a perfect and buttoned-up Master of The Universe. He vibrates with tension and anxiety. Virginia Newcomb is quiet but you can see the bruises of the neglect she is subject to as Jordan’s fiancee. She has everything she wants except the attention she needs as a woman and it kind of hurts to look into her face and see her not so carefully guarded unhappiness. Their relationship is a dance of two people who aren’t really communicating and who are both angry under the surface for different reasons. He can’t give her what she needs because he’s too busy being invincible and she can’t give him what he needs because he’s unable to ask for it.
It’s a small note that makes this obvious to the observant viewer. Inside the purple invitation envelope, there is a small card that asks for your preferences. Jordan has no problem marking his desire down on that card, which isn’t that kinky really, but I highly doubt that he would be able to actually ask his fiancee for that specific act in the bedroom and that’s a big part of his problem. He is so busy servicing his clients that he can’t ask for the things that he needs which creates resentment and a seething rage within him. It never occurs to him that his fiancee can’t read his mind and know what it is that he wants. She functions mainly as an ornament and a status symbol more than anything else. It’s a very important part of what the film is saying. Men are wired to not seem vulnerable or needy. That’s supposed to be what women are and women’s desires are looked at with contempt. You don’t show need or vulnerability because that makes you less of a man and more like some “crazy and overly emotional” woman. The film really can make you think about how human relationships, specifically marriage, are set up for failure in many ways. The idea of the affair as an exciting and dangerous thing is self-defeating but held up by many as a mark of manliness and virility. One of the most exciting things about THE BETA TEST is that it is a test of the audience as well. It tests you to think about the real reasons that things don’t work out so often in relationships and rue the violence that it drives people to. Why do men have such issues with the commitment that women seem to handle more easily? The answer is right in front of you and also out of reach. It is perhaps best stated in the ending.
The answer is with each individual and the choices that they make in their lives. It’s the realization that you always have a choice even though we convince ourselves that we have to follow the channels that our society has laid out for us. Its criticism of the agency and the entertainment industry culture is right on the nose as well. Even after all the revelations about people like Harvey Weinstein and what agents are really like, I don’t think people really understand how awful it really is.
Full disclosure: I worked at one of the former big three agencies and it is every bit as horrible as you’ve heard and much much worse than you think. You can’t truly understand how disgusting it is until you’ve experienced it personally.
There are some nice Neo-Giallo touches in the film. But overall, the style of the film isn’t the point, so most of it is fairly unobtrusive but well done. Cummings and McCabe work very well together as a team. The biggest special effect is Cummings’ face as the psychosis of the character Jordan threatens to break through at many points. Jordan is truly despicable at many points and PJ (the agent) works as a nice counterbalance to that character. There’s a little bit of paranoia about social media and an idea that The Beta Test has grown bigger than what it originally was, but it’s more implied than anything else.
THE BETA TEST is a laugh-out-loud funny horror satire that roasts men, specifically men in the entertainment industry, but also men who lack the ability to communicate and be truthful, and our society that has standards that are impossible for many human beings to live up to. Alternately shocking and hilarious, it’s a pretty purple envelope that has realistic horrors waiting for you inside.
THE BETA TEST is now available in select theaters, on Digital Platforms and VOD.