Outside of a few modern references, indie thriller Sequence Break could easily have been made some thirty-odd years ago. The film borrows from body horror classics of the past, drawing influences from The Thing (1982), Possession (1981) and Videodrome (1983) to produce alarm and disgust in viewers.
However, classic body horror films all contain a key element: the audience should care about the characters by the time they morph, dissolve, grow extra limbs, etc. The more invested we are in the cast, the more horrifying it is to watch them shapeshift into something ungodly. Sequence Break does succeed in this regard, creating characters that are recognizable and likable, but too often this achievement matters less amidst a loosely structured plot.
The entrancing arcade game threatens to steal Oz away from Tess, and reality, altogether.
Sequence Break sees Oz (Chase Williamson) working as a reclusive arcade technician. He has a simple life he’s never questioned until his boss, Jerry (Lyle Kanouse), announces that they are going out of business. Oz retreats to a bar at his boss’ behest, and stumbles headlong into a meet-cute with charming Tess (Fabienne Therese). After a beginning slathered in exposition, the plot unravels at a breakneck speed. A faceless man murders Jerry, and an entrancing arcade game called “Sequence Break” threatens to steal Oz away from Tess — and reality — altogether.
Williamson is a captivating lead, developing from a shy nobody to an intensely driven hero challenging a warped destiny. As for his chemistry with Therese, there is something easy and effortless about the way they come together. Though Oz has little relationship experience, Tess is just probing enough to make sense as a viable partner for him. She genuinely appears enthusiastic and patient enough to hold his hand through stages of deeper intimacy.
Graham Skipper frames the game as though it physically calls to Oz.
Conversely, “intimacy” might be a gentle word compared to what Sequence Break mainly prioritizes, which is gooey, brow-raising eroticism. Eroticism not just between Oz and his girlfriend, but Oz and the supernatural arcade game itself. More than once, Oz becomes so absorbed by the machine that it seemingly comes alive with dripping, oozing sentience. Director and writer Graham Skipper does well in framing the game as though it physically calls to Oz, and Williamson does well to match that energy as a man enraptured and aroused by the unexplainable.
The cinematography grows enchanting and experimental as Oz loses his grip on reality. In particular, there is a scene that is almost hypnotic in nature: trapped inside the game, we see a violent red light wash over Oz’s figure before it is doused in darkness. As an alternate version of himself approaches ever closer, the blinking red light glows intermittently on his profile. Oz appears more frightened with every reveal. Tension builds until he confronts himself, screaming.
Though the cinematography is captivating, the pacing of Sequence Break never quite feels right. True, the action unfolds in a psychedelic, disconcerting fashion, but even non-traditional films like Memento (2000) are able to capture notes of disorientation while keeping the script tight. There are more questions than answers, and the answers themselves aren’t as clever as they strive to be.
When Skipper aims to go beyond a simple scare and produce stomach-turning sequences, he really goes for it.
In terms of the horror elements, the special effects and lighting work in tandem to produce truly disturbing imagery. Namely, Oz’s vision of Tess emerging from a pit of black slime, eyes white with fear, is noticeably affecting. When Skipper aims to go beyond a simple scare and produce stomach-turning sequences, he really goes for it. Slime and ooze are prevalent as sexual motifs, especially when Oz pictures his limbs being replaced with spongy, monster-like appendages while he and Tess have sex. Even more chilling is the scene that follows Oz’s complete submersion into the game, when his face melts off in the fashion of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Williamson is a welcome presence who is sure to do well in future projects, while Therese is a strong foil as the female lead, but without agency she falls unwittingly into a chaotic story. The romantic pairing of Tess and Oz has moments of true sincerity, but sometimes feels misplaced in the context of the larger story. The ending is not well realized, and the twist is not surprising. Overall, Sequence Break is a film that works best as an homage to Cronenberg-esque body horror. Some scenes are better suited for an exceptional music video or short film rather than a full-fledged feature, but fans of classic horror will find something to latch onto.
Sequence Break drops exclusively on Shudder on May 25th.