Actor, writer and director Jim Cummings landed in cinema with the proverbial big splash with his assured debut Thunder Road. A tragic-comic tale of an incompetent but likeable policeman and his love for his daughter, it was a feel-good film with charm to burn. The Beta Test is anything but; it’s a serious-minded horror film that takes some deliberately unsympathetic characters into some Eyes Wide Shut territory as it investigates a potential sex and blackmail ring in the Hollywood entertainment industry. So don’t expect to be punching the air when The Beta Test ends; this offers the deliberate opposite of a warm and fuzzy.
Jordan (Cummings) is a Hollywood talent agent, so we know he’s a bad ‘un from the get-go. Jordan is about to get married, but when a mysterious purple envelope drops into his mailbox, Jordan sees an opportunity for one last fling. The letter offers him a night of no-strings sex in a local hotel; keeping his fiancé oblivious, Jordan rushes down to collect his prize. In the best tradition of EC comics, Jordan then gets all he deserves. Turns out there’s a price to be paid for such behaviour, and soon Jordan’s life starts to fall apart…can he identify his invisible adversary? Could it be his friend PJ (played by co-writer PJ McCabe) who seems to know a lot about it? Or his secretary, who makes a knowing comment which freaks Jordan out? Or could it be his fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) herself, testing his resolve? Either way, Jordan unravels in spectacular fashion, and soon Hollywood trends are the least of his problems.
The Beta Test passes one particular test with flying colours; this movie is very much about now, or at least 2020. The wheels are coming off the Hollywood agencies that ruled the roost for four decades, more so since the pandemic struck. Jordan’s life cycle of hedonism and excess is out of date, and he knows it; a brief mention of ‘the current climate’ could cover all number of different issues. But Jordan’s fall from grace has providence; a conspiracy emerges, one that bends Jordan out of shape to uncover, but also one that chimes with current concerns about data-protection vulnerability and the intrusive role of social media in our lives. It’ll take more than teeth-whitening tricks to put the smile back on the faces of these characters.
Despite an unneccessarily violent opening that suggests a different kind of film, Cummings and McCabe have made a smart, unsettling thriller that has a lo-fi but undeniably Hitchockian vibe, with a mystery to be solved and an unwitting sleuth forced to try to clear his name. Disturbing, smart and nihilistic AF, The Beta Test fits alongside such unsung texts as Under the Silver Lake and Ivansxtc in uncovering the sordid truth behind the Hollyweird glamour machine.