Plink, plink fizzing onto our screens as a timely antidote to the agonising cramps of painfully misguided media satire 15 Minutes, Series 7: The Contenders adds a minimal budget to a hot idea and succeeds on every level. Shot on Digital Video and with a cast of unknowns (although you might recognise Brooke "girl down the well" - Smith from Silence Of The Lambs), we're presented with three back-to-back "episodes" of the fictional TV show, complete with spaces for ad breaks and credits.
Wisely, the film doesn't go down the cheap gag route of fillingthe ad breaks with spoofy commercials for fictional products, so you can never quite shake the thought that what you're watching might actually be a TV pilot that you missed. Indeed, the format's so true to the current fad of reality programming - Big Brother, Survivor, America's Scariest Police Chases - - that if this ever gets let out on American TV, the switchboards would light up in a dazzling display of misunderstanding not seen since Orson Welles' radio adaptation of War Of The Worlds. And the scary thing is, only half of the callers will be the morally outraged - the other half will be trying to sign up for the new series.
Straddling a fine line between pitch-black comedy and straight social commentary, Series 7 switches effortlessly between crisp gags and chilling gawps at America's cultural descent into processed McHell. One moment a contender is chatting happily to the programme makers about his student days and watching a spot-on parody of every Goth media student's feeble attempt at a pop promo, the next we're watching the grim reality of people being bludgeoned to death as the cameras capture their dying pleas and screams. But what's most believable is how the contestants readily accept their fate... Not as killers, but as TV personalities. For all their horror at being forced to kill, their willingness to pour out their secrets to a camera is gruesomely familiar to anyone who's endured TV mulch like Vets In Practice or Airport. And, ultimately, the movie works by aping the massive credibility gap between the TV-makers promises (Conflict! Stalking! Death!) with the appalling banality of one scared personshooting the other in the back at a Kwik-E-Mart checkout.
The final chuckle is that if The Contenders was really real, would you really be bothered to tune into Series 8? Well maybe, maybe not... But only if you were in and it didn't clash with The West Wing.
A superbly assembled and acted message movie that never reveals whether it's totally moral or totally amoral. Effortlessly blurring the line between fact and fantasy, Series 7 deserves to make the Blair Witch leap from interested arthouse to shocked mainstream.