The Conference greets you with a burst of style. The three-dimensional block credits march through a scene of bloody mayhem, starting on the spattered miniature mock-up of a shopping centre and continuing through all varieties of gore-marked upheaval of the conference room where this mock-up is sitting, then out that room’s broken window. When the Swedish title KONFERENSEN splashes on screen in the same block letters, it’s on a country road approaching this scene. A white people mover carrying our characters passes under this title, as though the title were a covered bridge.
It’s a good preparation for a stylish 90 minutes to follow from director Patrik Eklund. He may not be giving us the most original horror comedy/satire you’ve ever seen, but he’s giving us a sturdy new entry in the proud tradition of the slasher film where a group stranded in a remote location gets steadily picked off. It’s got visual panache to spare.
The group is comprised of public sector employees who greenlit a new shopping centre, in what appears to be a suspiciously sylvan landscape. Instead of revitalising an urban area that, you know, potential shoppers could actually get to, the centre’s about to break ground in the middle of nowhere. That may be a preview for whether this project is above board, or whether it might be a corrupt enterprise serving the interests of a large company that will swoop in and pick over the ruins for its own benefit – with the promise of cushy jobs for the corrupt who pushed the project through.
The most suss among the group is its project manager, Jonas (Adam Lundgren), whose Peter Lorre eyes telegraph that he’s up to no good. By dumping too much work on Lina (Katia Winter), he compromised her health and forced her into extended leave that had both physical and mental components. She’s only just now returning for this conference that is intended to do team building and celebrate the ground-breaking. She has compassionate colleagues like her mates Roger (Martin Lagos) and Nadja (Bahar Pars), but then the selfish division head Ingela (Maria Sid) and Jonas’ flunky Kaj (Christoffer Nordenrot) tip things back in the other direction.
The staff of the woodsy conference centre, who are a bit eccentric in their own right, are the first to begin disappearing, as a mysterious external threat exacerbates the already fractious relationships among the team. Making matters more terrifying, their killer is wearing the mask of the shopping centre’s new mascot, Sooty – an oversized head with a grin that’s too cheery by half.
The Conference is in the same thematic neighbourhood as other slashfests set in the working world, such as the movie Severance from 2006 (not the recent TV show), and 2016’s The Belko Experiment. The notion that competition within an industry may literally be cutthroat has been the subject of many a film. That’s sort of what The Conference is saying, though the message is tweaked to expand the satire beyond the ruthless dynamics of the workplace itself, to the societal value of the work being done. In some of those other instances, the type of work isn’t relevant. That’s not the case here.
You get the sense, though, that a more pointed version of The Conference may have once existed, only it was abandoned in favour of the film’s more basic genre pleasures. And those are plenty. We get a variety of interesting kills involving a variety of implements you’d readily find around a rural retreat. Eklund and company adhere to the general horror wisdom that the more the killer’s mask looks like it was stolen from an animatronic rodent a children’s themed pizza restaurant, the scarier it is wielding an outboard motor at a potential victim.
Eklund’s abilities as a filmmaker do raise the bar a bit for the narrative itself, priming us for something just a little more original or surprising than what we get. Once the story gets a shove in the direction it’s going, the momentum carries it along a familiar path toward its conclusion.
Fortunately, the cast do give us something to invest ourselves in. We don’t get back stories and have only a few signifiers to draw on, but the actors supply us with shorthand traits that sell us on whether to cheer for or jeer them. Much like society itself, they reflect a cross section of pernicious opportunists, oblivious bureaucrats, dedicated workers who are content to fly under the radar, and actual principled people who want to stand up for what is right. Which, in the end, is probably not a shopping centre out in the middle of nowhere.
The Conference is currently streaming on Netflix.