‘Kolobos’: The Reality TV Horror Ahead of Its Time
December 1st, 2021 | By Sab Astley
An Arrow Video Christmas sale is always a good time to find an underappreciated genre flick. That’s how I found Kolobos, Daniel Liatowitsch & David Todd Ocvirk’s one-and-only project. I was enticed by its televisual-centric cover art, its blurb drawing me in with promises of reality TV-turned-terrifying. Watching it felt like stumbling across a hidden trailblazer, inspiring the likes of My Little Eye and Saw. It sits on the periphery of the reality TV explosion of the 2000s, with a visual and sonic dedication to 1970’s Giallos. I had found a cult classic waiting to re-emerge.
Kolobos is the product of a team of recent film school graduates—produced for a mere $500,000—which ultimately wound up going direct-to-video. The plot is surprisingly more complex than your typical independent production. Psychologically troubled Kyra (Amy Weber) agrees to participate in an experimental film (it’s always the experimental films, isn’t it?) with a group of strangers, their every move and conversation recorded by cameras for two months. However, once they settle in, they discover the house’s plethora of deadly tricks and traps, their suffering captured by an unseen malevolent director.
Liatowitsch and Ocvirk move in a number of directions, their visual and sonic avenues guided by the iconic horror subgenre, the giallo. They paint their scenes with the same buckets used by Dario Argento. Their washes of neon create sinister glows as the house descends into suffocating claustrophobia, like a creepy kaleidoscopic rainbow. In Arrow’s re-release, the directors noted their temporary soundtrack was Argento’s Suspiria, and thus any accusations of an attempt at Goblin’s sound are thoroughly grounded in truth.
Given the genre of television was still in its infancy, Kolobos’ commentary on reality television is one of the first. The group are selected to fit specific stereotypes often found in reality TV show contestants. The directors mimic MTV’s The Real World—a groundbreaking show within the subgenre—as a clear vein of inspiration. The Real World’s audition tape process is satirized through our introduction to the group via their own tapes: there’s fame-hungry B-movie starlet Erica (Nichole Pelerine), sexist frat boy “gangster of love” Tom (Donny Terranova), sensitive Gary (John Fairlie), and free-spirited Tina (Promise LaMarco). It’s clear that each of the characters exhibit some of the most common reality TV star traits; having these characters inhabit singular traits creates a campiness in Kolobos that elevates their interactions. Intentional or not, there’s a comedic root that allows for a watch-party repeatability. You could even read Kolobos as a prophetic guidebook for reality TV stardom: the more emotionally complicated and mysterious you are, the longer you survive.
Kolobos appears to be the first piece of media to fully incorporate the reality TV subgenre into its material, predating many later horror and satire entries that would also riff on reality TV. Series 7: The Contenders would later build upon a similar premise of fighting for survival on television—it takes a far more satirical approach, whereas Kolobos is much more horror-oriented. There are also shades of previous horror hallmarks’ influence, like Wes Craven’s Scream. There’s a conversation around horror’s female-centred tropes that takes place when Erica shows the group the B-movie horrors she’s starred in. The group comments and jokes about how the female protagonists in horror are forever the screaming, helpless victims and never the victimizers themselves. “The Final Girl is so overdone!” the group cries.
It also predates the most well known horror based around reality TV: My Little Eye, a British title remarkably similar to Kolobos’ own premise. Intentional plagiarism is unlikely, as it takes inspiration from psychological-experiment TV show Big Brother, launched two years prior. Still, Liatowitsch and Ocvirk’s foresight into the voyeuristic fascination of reality television is partially what cements Kolobos as a noteworthy title. But its greatest achievement is the road it paved for a little independent title that would come five years later: James Wan’s Saw.
As mentioned, the reality TV house Kolobos is set in is host to a cornucopia of elaborate traps and devices. Possibly inspired by Demon Seed, the house exhibits an intelligent malevolence through its pressure points and activation lasers, unleashing a host of deadly machinations. From the buzzsaw-ejecting KitchenAid and ankle-snapping mechanical claws, to acid-spitting showerhead, there’s an ingenious toybox of torture that feels as though it opened the door for Saw’s industrial torture rooms. There’s also the use of cassette recorders and grimy videotapes. Both are employed as tools of fear to further the housemate’s terror, listening to their decapitated friend’s voice or watching their assumed director’s cling film suffocation.
Admittedly, Kolobos’ mental health commentary has not aged well. Calling a mental institution a “looney shack where all the psychos and weirdos live” is far from the most accurate portrayal of those facilities. However, it serves a narrative purpose: foreshadowing. Despite the objectivity of the reality TV show framing, we actually experience most of the film from Kyra’s POV. Outside of the house’s deadly surprises, much of the unexplainable horror is experienced by her alone. From the TV broadcasts of a man skinning himself, to the disturbing faceless entities that appear and disappear at will, the supernatural occurrences are inextricably tied to her. Liatowitsch nurses a growing suspicion in the group against Kyra, creating a contrast between the viewer and the group: they believe Kyra to be responsible for what’s happening, but we have seen what the others haven’t—she couldn’t be involved, could she?
The cerebral ending that Liatowitsch leaves us with is certainly one that’ll divide viewers. On one hand, the repetition of visual iconography and Weber’s unsettlingly joyful demeanour unravels your certainty of what’s been witnessed, forcing you to reconsider the authenticity of Kyra’s subjectivity. On the other hand, without prior viewings, this sudden psychological complexity may be blindsiding, unintentionally undermining the effect it hopes to have on you. Personally, the inherently divisive ambiguity of Kolobos’ ending adds to its unique distinction; it forces more questions rather than providing an all-too-traditional “Final Girl” horror ending, which remains true to the film’s intentions considering Liatowitsch & Ocvirk’s satirical commentary around female-led horror.
It’s true that Kolobos will not be for everyone—there’s a pulpiness to its characters that may not appeal to some who may simply call it a terrible film and switch it off. There are many different horror elements at play, and they don’t all come together neatly. However, the prescience that Liatowitsch and Ocvirk display through their prophetic satire of reality TV, horrorizing the genre before it gripped the public consciousness, carves out a special place for it in the contemporary horror canon. It contains many of the hallmarks and visual reference points that cult films often feature. Its intelligent ambition to defy tropes and resist a clear ending make it a thoroughly worthy title for reassessment by scholars, critics, and horror fans alike.
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