(1983) Written and directed by Dick Maas; Starring: Huub Stapel, Willeke van Ammelrooy, Josine van Dalsum; Available on DVD (Region 2)
“A lift doesn’t move on its own – or does it?” – Police Inspector (Siem Vroom)
The ‘70s and ‘80s were the heyday of films depicting inanimate objects that developed sentience, including such titles as Killdozer (1974), The Car (1977), Christine (1983), and Maximum Overdrive (1986). Netherlands-based filmmaker Dick Maas threw his hat in the ring with 1983’s murderous elevator film, The Lift. Like those other movies, he takes an exceedingly dumb premise, and treats it with the level of seriousness usually devoted to a Merchant Ivory production.
According to a recent interview, writer/director Maas (who also composed the film’s synthesizer-laden score) acknowledged Stephen King’s short story “The Mangler” as a source of inspiration for The Lift, and modeled his movie’s structure after Jaws (Source: UK Horror Scene interview by James Simpson). Instead of Brody versus a hungry shark, however, it’s Felix versus a rogue elevator. Maas set his man-against- machine thriller* in a high rise commercial building, featuring a lone elevator repairman who’s determined to uncover the truth about a series of seemingly random accidents. First, a group of obnoxious restaurant patrons nearly suffocate, then a blind man falls down the shaft, and a night watchman is decapitated. Clues lead to a shady electronics firm called Rising Sun, which supplies the microprocessors for the computer-controlled elevators.
* Maas remade The Lift as an English language film, The Shaft (aka: Down) in 2001, suggesting there’s still life left in the killer elevator theme.
As preposterous as The Lift may seem at times, Maas has his finger on the pulse of some of our deep-seated fears about elevators. Most of us give little thought to the technology behind such a common means of conveyance, or the possible (if remote) inherent dangers if something goes wrong. If we stop to think about it, the mind reels with a multitude of possible scenarios, however unlikely they might be: power outage, a cable snaps, trapped between levels, or becoming caught in the closing doors. Not everyone relishes the idea of entering an enclosed space, if only for a few moments. Even if we’re not inclined toward claustrophobia, becoming an unwitting captive might stretch our comfort levels. We might choose to take the stairs if it’s only a few floors, but in a high-rise building, it’s unlikely we’ll choose to traverse multiple flights.
For a film with such a low-brow premise, The Lift features some surprisingly solid performances, including Huub Stapel (who would go on to appear in other Maas films) as Felix Adelaar, Josine van Dalsum as his thankless wife Saskia, and Willeke van Ammelrooy as a persistent tabloid reporter. Felix is an elevator repairman suffering from a malaise after 10 years of marriage. He becomes obsessed, to the detriment of the rest of his family, with discovering the cause of several fatal incidents involving one of the elevators that he maintains. In one of the film’s many stretches, we’re supposed to accept that Felix would go to such extraordinary lengths to conduct a full-fledged investigation of the strange goings-on surrounding the deaths. As a result, he seems out of place in his own movie, occupying a role that would normally be reserved for a police detective. By comparison, the actual police inspector character isn’t given much to do.
Beyond the premise, Maas invites us to suspend disbelief on numerous counts. When things start going haywire in the office building, it’s hard to imagine why everyone didn’t just follow the movie tagline’s advice, and “take the stairs,” instead of continuing to place themselves in harm’s way. When Felix’s wife eventually leaves him, he doesn’t spend much effort to set the record straight regarding her accusations of adultery with a snooping female reporter. To make matters worse, the film is a little too coy about Felix’s relationship, with the final scene implying there is more going on than we’ve been led to believe. Also (MINOR SPOILER ALERT), it’s never adequately explained why an elevator company would need super-advanced experimental organic-based chips that self-replicate or why such chips would develop self-awareness or become murderous. Even if we’re willing to accept the circumstances around the other accidents, it’s hard to buy the cringe-worthy final death scene, which places a quasi-supernatural spin on the film and stretches the film’s logic to the breaking point.
As ridiculous as the story gets, Dick Maas raises valid concerns about our fear of technology and progress – as things get more complicated, it’s easier to screw them up. While The Lift won’t win points for plausibility, it’s effective enough within its own boundaries. What it does, it does fairly well. More than 30 years onward, I still can’t believe someone made this film, but I’m sort of glad he did. If we permit ourselves to step outside our rational selves for a moment and let The Lift take hold, it might just make you think twice before stepping into the next elevator.