Sequence Break (2016)

We’ve finally reached the point in horror filmmaking where directors and writers look back with fondness on the combination of schlock and awe that was 1980s horror. 80s Carpenter brought us The Thing and 80s Cronenberg brought us The Fly, so now we’re beginning to see films so clearly referential to both that they almost don’t need their own plots. Sequence Break from writer/director Graham Skipper, now at Fantasia Fest, is a horrific love letter to the 1980s, complete with pixelated horror graphics and some (very effective) body-horror a la Cronenberg.

This is the story of Oz (Chase Williamson), a young man who works at a shop repairing old arcade games. Informed by his boss that the shop is going to have to close, Oz hightails it to the nearest bar, where he meets fellow gaming enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Theresa), who takes a liking to him. The pair begin a sweet and tentative romance that is interrupted when a mysterious new game appears in the shop (along with a disheveled crazy man who occasionally appears to warn Oz about…something). As Oz becomes increasingly obsessed with the eight-bit video game, his world begins to fragment (literally) blasting him backward and forward in time and space as the game sucks him and Tess ever deeper into the void.

Sequence Break is one of those films with an intriguing premise that never completely pays off. It actually avoids being overly referential to its influences, instead attempting to build a world of its own design and with its own rules. What those rules are, however, becomes increasingly obscure, as the film never manages to create a coherent narrative around the fragmenting of Oz’s world. It’s not linear enough to be a mainstream horror film, but not fragmented enough to achieve the heights of surreal terror that it aspires to. The central romance, while sweet, still has a breath of wish-fulfillment behind it, with Tess almost aggressively pursuing Oz, who shyly ignores her for a good bit of the opening, more or less content in his anti-social world.

Although set in contemporary times, Sequence Break remains solidly enmeshed in 80s technology and culture – even aggressively so, as Oz refuses to buy a cell phone or a laptop. The nostalgic throwback does stand Sequence Break in good stead, with some excellent body horror elements that would make Cronenberg feel squicky. But there’s nothing underlying it. The crazy man prowling the arcade shop at night? Well, he’ll figure in, and you’ll probably be able to predict just how within the first twenty minutes. The melting video game controls that become a stand-in for sexual intercourse? OK, interesting notion, but what are you going to do with it? I can accept the body horror, the physicality of descent into a blank, eight-bit world, if only I managed to find something more than just grossness at the back of that horror. Sequence Break often feels like a film made by people who watched The Fly and Dead Ringers over and over, and never totally got what they meant.

I found I wanted more exposition, not less, to fully understand what was at stake within this narrative. Is Oz becoming the game? Getting pulled into it? Why did it show up when it did? And so forth. But unfortunately, it seems that the actual underlying ethos of the film is pretty trite, as becomes apparent with several revelatory scenes prior to the somewhat inexplicable climax. This has been done before; many times, in fact. While repeating a plot arc that has worked well in the past is far from a crime, Sequence Break never manages to achieve something truly unique. And that’s what it needs: a hook, a unique element that isn’t just about diverging timelines and the occasional nihilistic raving.

Sequence Break does not quite live up to its ambitions. It’s nowhere as shocking as it wants to be, falling back on old, somewhat time-worn tropes of self-realization that are so predictable as to be boring. The eight-bit images flicker across the screen, reminding us of a time when video games were massive things you played at arcades, and movies made do with the limited technology they had. But, really, we’ve seen all this before. Just watch The Fly.

Sequence Break is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

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