After quietly making a name for himself in Joe Begos’s Almost Human and The Mind’s Eye, as well as playing Herbert West onstage in Re: Animator: The Musical, actor Graham Skipper broke out in a huge way last year as the lead in Jackson Stewart’s thrilling debut feature, Beyond The Gates. Now, Skipper steps behind the camera for his own film, the Videodrome-esque body horror shocker Sequence Break.
For those not in the know (i.e. me), sequence breaking is defined as “the act of performing actions or obtaining items out of the intended linear order, or of skipping “required” actions or items entirely” while playing a video-game. Skipper is primarily concerned with old school gaming, setting his story, as he does, predominantly in a store specialising in the sale of the kind of arcade games most of us will remember from childhood.
Our hero is Oz (Chase Williamson, who played Skipper’s brother in Beyond The Gates), an isolated, but well-intentioned young man ekeing out a living alongside his kindly boss/mentor/encourager to have more of a life. When a mysterious new game shows up, accompanied (maybe?) by an equally mysterious stranger, Oz finds himself thrust into a nightmarish virtual reality world that, in spite of the new relationship he shyly embarks upon with a local girl, he finds hard to quit.
Sequence Break is an inspired, skin-crawlingly unnerving and attention-grabbing debut that chimes well with Skipper’s subtle, nuanced acting work thus far. Self-penning the script was a risk but it gives the first-time director the scope to control every aspect of his vision. As a result, there isn’t a moment in the film’s eighty(!) minutes that feels wasted, every frame dripping with caution and intrigue, every hum of Van Hughes’s creepy, evocative score hinting at the dangers lurking within.
The SFX, by John and Sierra Russell, are utterly flawless too, imbuing the nightmare sequences (if that is with they are) with a real-world tactility that’s stomach churning in its intensity. Videodrome is obviously a huge influence but Sequence Break is its own gooey, squelchy, oozing monster, and Skipper wisely keeps his concept simple enough that it feels equally outlandish and fiendishly possible all at once (“maybe it’s haunted?” is one well-timed quip).
Shots of the game lurking in the background like a killer waiting to strike are genius, hinting at Skipper’s original intention to make this a slasher movie of sorts. As it stands, the sci-fi/body horror aspect is ideal. From body parts entwined with wires to spurts of hideous goo and ghoulishly melting buttons, the frights are often more existential and hypnotic than gross-out (though they are that, too). The emphasis on practical over CG makes sense, ’cause as any card-carrying horror fan knows, more practical = more gross.
The effects might be mind-blowing, but Skipper grounds his story by keeping it firmly character-driven. The addition of Fabianne Therese’s (who you’ll recognise from Southbound) Tess adds a further layer of intrigue to Sequence Break, as it’s suggested that perhaps Oz is cheating on her with the game. Tess also schools him on games at one point, which still feels pretty progressive (take that, Gamergaters!) while their chemistry is natural.
As for Williamson, who occupies virtually every shot of the movie, Oz is a very different role for the young actor that shows a side of him not yet glimpsed. To his immense credit, Williamson inhabits the character from the off, pulling his sleeves over his hands, his eyes darting away in fear when Tess first approaches him. Oz is a character who easily could’ve been grating but Williamson makes it his own, giving him empathy.
It’s important, too, because so much of Sequence Break‘s success hinges on whether or not we can invest in Oz’s personal struggle. Williamson and Skipper played well off each other in Beyond The Gates so it’s easy to see why the latter chose him for this, but even so there is a depth to Williamson’s performance here, in spite of the escalating craziness of everything around him, that marks him out as someone very special indeed.
Still, the majority of curious viewers will seek out Sequence Break for the promise of gooey practical FX alone and, in this regard, the movie cannot be faulted. However, outside of the drool-worthy, yucky, tangible delights and striking visual pallette contained within, this is also a strong, character-driven story in its own right, about a young man finding his place in the world that marks Skipper out as one to watch in future. A must-see in more ways than one.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Graham Skipper
Writer(s): Graham Skipper
Stars: Chase Williamson, Fabianne Therese, John Dinan, Lyle Kanhouse
Studio/ Production Co: Basement Productions
Length: 80 minutes
Sub-Genre: Body horror