Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Phenomena (aka: Creepers)

(1985) Written and directed by Dario Argento; Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi

Available on DVD

Rating: **

Oh boy, where to start?  Dario Argento is not generally known for his coherent plots, but Phenomena takes this conceit to new levels.  It feels as if ideas from several movies were smooshed together to achieve this end result, which borrows liberally from other, superior Argento films.  If I had to describe Phenomena to someone (other than “What the heck did I just watch?”), it would be giallo with a supernatural horror twist. 

One thing you can’t accuse Mr. Argento of is creating a slow buildup.  He believes in diving into the deep end from the get-go.  No kiddie pool for him!  In the opening scene, a high school-aged girl misses her bus, and is left on a deserted highway in the middle of the Alps.  She discovers a secluded house, and unwisely wanders inside, shouting, "I'm a foreigner, and I'm lost" (No, I didn’t make that up.), oblivious to the fact that she’s virtually ringing the dinner bell for whomever might be lurking inside.  Naturally, this alerts the presence of an unseen stalker, and before you can say “plot convenience,” she becomes the film’s first victim.  

We’re then treated to a non-sequitur voiceover narration, introducing the main character, Jennifer Corvino, played by a teenaged, pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly.  Whatever happened to the narrator is unknown, as he’s never heard from again.  Perhaps he was another murder victim? 

Jennifer is the token American in an exclusive Swiss boarding school, run by an authoritarian headmistress.  She takes up residence in a room formerly occupied by the murdered girl from the opening sequence.  If this sounds more than a little familiar, substitute German for Swiss, and you’ll be left with a setup straight out of the much better Suspiria.  Jennifer has the power to communicate with and control insects, with the stray arachnid thrown in for good measure.  Additionally, she tends to sleepwalk at night, in heavy metal-drenched sequences that wouldn’t have been out of place in an MTV music video of the era.  This doesn’t win points with the headmistress or her fellow classmates, who regard her with suspicion and contempt.  After two other girls die in typical over-the-top Argento fashion, Jennifer begins to see a connection with the murders through her somnambulistic dreams.

Her only ally is wheelchair-bound Professor John McGregor, played by the usually reliable Donald Pleasence.  McGregor is a Scottish entomologist working in Switzerland, giving Pleasence an opportunity to employ a not entirely convincing Scottish brogue.  His laboratory is populated by the usual assortment of creepy crawlies that you’d expect to see.  True to his vague movie scientist roots, his research apparently doesn’t focus on one particular species, but involves all terrestrial arthropods.  He’s assisted by a sometimes knife-wielding chimpanzee who threatens to steal the show.  Pleasence’s scenes with Connelly work the best, and some of their dialogue is mildly intriguing as he attempts to come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation for her psychic link between the insects.  Before long, they conclude that the insects can lead her to the killer, setting her off on a lone quest, against any semblance of good judgment.

If the first two thirds of Phenomena were shaky, it’s the bugnuts (sorry, I couldn’t resist) third act that takes complete leave of its senses.  Up to this point, spontaneous musical interludes and insects aside, it’s a fairly straightforward murder mystery plot.  Things start careening out of control, once Jennifer decides to look for the killer herself. Without giving too much away, the reveal of the killer seems completely arbitrary.  Instead of shock or surprise, I was left with a big huh?   I’m not an expert on building a well-crafted mystery screenplay, but I believe the first step would be to start with some possible suspects, and build suspense through character development to raise logical doubts about one or more of the suspects.  The big reveal should be earned, not random or tacked on.  But then again, that’s just me.  This eventually leads to a deus ex machina ending that has to be seen to be believed.

Jennifer’s choices shift from questionable to downright stupid.  Her actions seem preordained in the script, instead of consistent with anyone possessing more than a brain stem.  (Minor spoiler alert!)  Late in the film, she’s led to the lair of the killer, only to fall into their trap.  Word to the wise: if you’re ever stuck in the house of someone who seems mentally unstable and they insistently hand you some strange pills, don’t take them.

Phenomena is a complete mess from start to finish.  It’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value and it’s never boring, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good film.  Your own enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on your tolerance for Argento’s trademark over-the-top kills, along with plot twists that make no sense at all.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, then have at it.  I think I’ll just watch an old Hitchcock flick instead.

Friday, June 24, 2011

June Quick Picks and Pans

Black Sabbath (1963) Mario Bava directed this stylish horror anthology, with introductions by the one and only Boris Karloff.  Karloff seemed to be having a blast as the host of the stories, delivering his lines with hammy, ghoulish perfection.  The first story, “The Drop of Water,” is the best, and concerns a nurse and her deceased patient.  After she performs her final duty of dressing the dead woman in her burial dress, she decides that she’d like a little bonus for her troubles (in the form of a ring on the dead woman’s finger).  She takes little notice of the fact that the reclusive old lady was steeped in the occult, and even after death would not take kindly to this infraction.  It starts with a simple premise and builds tension steadily, to reach a satisfyingly horrific conclusion.  “The Telephone,” is the weakest of the trio, about a young woman receiving a series of disturbing calls from a man whom she thought to be dead.  Michèle Mercier plays the lady in distress, and mostly walks around her apartment in sheer garments, smoking and looking frightened.  The last segment of Black Sabbath, “The Wurdalak,” takes place in 19th century Eastern Europe, and feels brooding and fatalistic.  Karloff himself stars as Gorca, the patriarch of a family anxiously awaiting his return.  It’s a little slow, but suitably atmospheric, with ample shadows and stark splashes of color to set the mood.  It’s a vampire story unlike most others, with the premise that vampires will only prey on those they love.  Like most horror anthologies, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but even if the rest of the film never quite lives up to the promise of the excellent first segment, it’s well worth checking out.

Rating: ****; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Mr. Sardonicus (1961) This William Castle film was originally released with the novel gimmick, the “Punishment Poll,” whereby the audience could decide the fate of the title character.  As you can probably guess with a name like Baron Sardonicus, you’re not going to win many popularity contests.  His face is frozen in a ghastly, permanent rictus, and he inflicts pain and suffering on the people around him.  The mere mentioning of his name in the local village is enough to spur hatred and revulsion from the residents.  Mr. Sardonicus was based on a novella by Ray Russell, but you can see the obvious parallels to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Sir Robert Cargrave is a gifted London doctor who has made significant breakthroughs in the study of paralysis.  He travels to the faraway, made-up land of Gorslava at the behest of Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe) to help find a cure for his facial malady. Sardonicus’ character is given some depth, due to his tragic origins, but his sadistic actions that follow only help cement his ultimate fate.  It should be no surprise to anyone that this will end up badly for Sardonicus.  One of the movie’s highlights is William Castle’s droll introduction, as he emerges from the foggy banks of the Thames to establish the guidelines of his latest gimmick.  Castle, true to form, always maintained that he had filmed an alternate, less punitive ending for Mr. Sardonicus, but this has never seen the light of day.  As a showman and shrewd judge of human nature, however, it’s doubtful that Castle ever bothered to work on another ending.  We may never know the real story, but we have this dark and entertaining tale to serve as Castle’s legacy. 

Rating: ***½.  Available on DVD.

Screamplay (1985) If you combined The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Day of the Locust, you might get something like this… maybe.  Director/co-writer Rufus B. Seder stars as Edgar Allen, a young screenwriter hoping to make it big in Hollywood – at least this version of Hollywood, which was actually filmed in Boston.  His burning desire to write a murder mystery keeps getting sidetracked by a series of unrelated (Or are they unrelated?) murders.  He takes up residence in a dingy apartment building, along with an assorted cast of hopefuls and burnouts.  Screamplay was shot in black and white, and utilizes some inventive camera work to blend film noir with expressionism.  It’s difficult to describe Screamplay without comparing it to the work of other writer/directors, especially John Waters (pre-Polyester) and David Lynch (think Eraserhead). Acting ranges from awful to passable.  Seder did a lot with the meager resources he had.  It’s an odd little film that might just be worth a look, if you’re bored of the same old thing.  Warning: you might want to skip over the groan-worthy introduction by Troma maven Lloyd Kaufman, unless you’re starved for bad jokes.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

Gargoyles (1972) This mediocre made-for-TV movie had been making the rounds through re-runs over the years, although I had only managed to see bits and pieces before this viewing.  I recall watching a portion of the film at a friend’s house one time, more years ago than I care to remember.  Even at an early, impressionable age I knew that this wasn’t exactly prime material, and commented accordingly. 

My friend’s older sister remarked,”You’re so cynical.”

Years later, I decided to revisit the film and see if my initial, albeit incomplete, impressions were correct.  Seeing the movie in its entirety did nothing to improve my opinion.  I just kept waiting for Joel (or Mike) and the bots to arrive, to make this more enjoyable.  The makeup effects by a young Stan Winston don’t make this a worthwhile viewing experience.  Frankly, he did much better.  Some of the titular creatures have wings, while others do not.  This was probably a result of budgetary restrictions rather than any logical explanation for the cave-dwelling species.  It’s also never really explained how the gargoyles expected to take dominion of the earth over humankind, especially when they’re not exactly impervious to bullets.  Most of the scenes depicting the creatures in action are in slow motion, seemingly for no particular reason.  I’m guessing that the filmmakers wanted to capture the feel of a 50s monster flick, but Gargoyles doesn’t possess the naïve charm of its grade B predecessors.  Gargoyles has been touted by some as a low budget mini-classic, but I just found it tedious.  Man, I’m so cynical. 

Rating: **.  Available on DVD.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Overlooked Gems That Deserve to be Better Known

Kenny & Company (1976) Wanna know what it was like growing up in suburban Southern California during the 70s?  This is probably the best glimpse into domestic life in the decade of shame that you’re likely to get, short of building your own time machine.  Don Coscarelli wrote and directed this fun, bittersweet flick that depicts 11-year-old Kenny and his friends as they get into and out of various misadventures.  The kids are smart, but not overly precocious in a contrived Little Rascals sort of way.  Many of the situations ring true.  The kids talk like kids, and there are no attempts to sugarcoat the dialogue.  Although I didn’t have friends exactly like Kenny and his comrades, I knew many kids like them, and I often found myself in similar absurd, and sometimes compromising, dilemmas.
The story builds to a pseudo-climax as Halloween approaches, but Halloween is just a MacGuffin for the comedy and drama of the moment that Kenny & Company captures so well.  The film accurately reflects the ups and downs of life.  According to the DVD’s informative featurette, Coscarelli enlisted the aid of many of his family and friends to flesh out the cast and crew.  This undoubtedly contributed to the uneven acting displayed throughout, but this does little to detract from the film’s overall entertainment value.  Many of the actors would appear in his next movie, Phantasm, which explored much darker themes.  Kenny & Company is not simply a dress rehearsal for Coscarelli’s better-known follow up, but a true slice of life.  Sit back, relax, and groove out to the mellow tunes of Reggie Bannister (who also plays a small, but memorable role in the film).  Okay, maybe not that last part, but it’s still a fine flick.
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” comments Jason Robards’ Charles Halloway, as the evil Mr. Dark approaches.  This underrated film has never seen a lot of love from the mainstream critics, but it has resonated in my mind over the years.  Something Wicked This Way Comes nicely captures the look and tone of Bradbury’s stories, which should come as no surprise, since he wrote the screenplay (adapted from his novel).  Bradbury’s story is evocative of a simpler time that never existed, but you somehow wish it did.  Two pre-teen boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade witness the strange metamorphosis that occurs in their town after Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium unexpectedly appears one autumn night. 
At times, the film threatens to wallow in ersatz nostalgia.  The all-too-obvious movie set town appears to be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and the kids manage to never say anything more harsh than “darn.”  There’s still much to like about this film, however, with its pervasive sense of dread.  Robards is particularly good as Will’s aging father, and Jonathan Pryce exudes a subtle menace as the satanic Mr. Dark.  One by one, the town’s resident’s fall under the spell of Mr. Dark, who promises to make their most heartfelt desires come true, but for a terrible price.  James Horner’s great score does a lot to elevate the tension, effectively communicating the shift from light to dark.  The odd mixture of sentimentality with the macabre seems to be a strange brew, but it’s also oddly endearing.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is a product from another time, and a different studio system.  It’s an eccentric little curio worth revisiting.  
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

American Movie (1999) This documentary should be required viewing for any would-be independent filmmaker.  American Movie chronicles the attempts of Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt to produce the short horror film, Coven, despite the formidable obstacles that stand in his way.  He’s clearly knowledgeable about the craft of filmmaking, but the lack of funds, formal training, or support inhibits his chances for success.  He begs, borrows and cajoles his friends and family members in his zeal to complete Coven.  Movies are his passion – a lifelong obsession not shared by the majority of people around him.  His most ardent supporters are his girlfriend and best buddy Mike, but they seem to be in the minority.  Most of his family greets his ideas with skepticism or outright disdain. 
Taken at face value, many of the situations depicted in this documentary could easily evoke feelings of schadenfreude.  It’s easy to laugh at Borchardt’s frustration as he repeatedly endeavors to pry his uncle Bill from his wallet to help finance Coven.  It’s difficult to take Borchardt seriously when he talks about making it big, but at the age of 30 is still relegated to menial work delivering papers or cleaning up a local graveyard.  But documentarians Sarah Price and Chris Smith are not interested in being mean spirited -- getting to the core of Borchardt’s motivation is their goal.  American Movie is a romantic film in the sense that it’s about one man’s relentless pursuit of his ideals, regardless of the substantial personal and financial toll.  How you ultimately react to the film and Mark Borchardt’s predicament is sort of a barometer for how much you believe in the value of holding on to your childhood dreams.  In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not the end product of Borchardt’s labors is any good, * but that he persevered, even when plain old common sense dictated that he should stop. 
Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD.
* As an added bonus, the DVD includes Borchardt’s short film, Coven.  So, is it any good?  Well… For any of you parents out there that have been subjected to one of your child’s more incomprehensible artistic creations, the usual response is something like: ”Hmmmm… That’s um… very interesting.” 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Classics Revisited: The Thing

(1982) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Bill Lancaster; Based on a story by John W. Campbell, Jr.; Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart and Donald Moffat;
Available on DVD and Blu Ray

Rating: *****

What’s It About?

The opening scene of The Thing presents a mystery, as the two surviving members of a doomed Norwegian outpost mercilessly pursue a sled dog across the Antarctic wasteland, and stumble onto a neighboring American research station.  This puzzling and ultimately unfortunate encounter leads the Americans back to the Norwegian outpost, which now lies in ruins, with all of its personnel dead.  The Americans quickly learn that the Norwegian researchers had discovered a crashed alien spacecraft, along with one its occupants, entombed in the ice for 100,000 years.  One of the only remaining clues in the Norwegian encampment is a hideous twisted mass of human flesh, which the Americans bring back to base for further study. 

As the American team begins to put the pieces together about what happened to the Norwegian team, they become aware that the extra-terrestrial creature might not have been dead, but dormant.  The true horror of the creature does not reside in its true appearance (we never actually see its original form), but in what it can imitate.  Its cells act independently to copy other living things, spreading like an infection.  If the replication is allowed to continue, the planet will be overrun by the copies, and life as we know it will cease to exist.  Paranoia and tension build as everyone becomes a suspect, and the thing strives to divide and conquer the beleaguered researchers.  In an effort to stop the alien life form, the men try to devise a plan to deduce who’s still human, and who’s not.

Much of the suspense and tension can be credited to the fine ensemble work by the cast.  Kurt Russell is great as the jaded helicopter pilot MacReady.  You get the sense that Antarctica is the perfect home for his character, since he appears to have turned his back on the rest of the world.  Many of the supporting cast members turn in equally impressive performances, but Wilford Brimley especially stands out as Blair.  If you’ve only seen him pushing Quaker Oats, or as the spokesman for diabetics everywhere, then you’re in for an unexpected treat.  Blair is the first of the American team to realize the potential impact of the alien creature on human life, and the first of the American team to become unhinged.  His cold assessment of the situation gives way to madness, resulting in his makeshift incarceration by the rest of the frightened researchers.

Without a doubt, the film’s true star is Rob Bottin, whose nightmarish effects work brings the shape-shifting organism in The Thing to life.  His repulsive creations do an admirable job of displaying the creature in all of its various stages of transformation.  The myriad forms are deliciously horrendous and astonishingly unique.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

The word “remake” typically carries a negative stigma, implying that nothing could possibly be as good as the original.  Remakes are generally regarded as inferior knockoffs that emphasize style over substance and have little else to say.  Historically speaking, this is true.  Good, or even great, remakes are a rarity (the 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, or the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are a couple of notable exceptions), which often leads them to being summarily dismissed by critics and filmgoers alike.  It’s probably this bias alone that prevented John Carpenter’s version from gaining more critical acclaim during its initial release.

John Carpenter’s version closely follows John W. Campbell’s original 1938 novella, “Who Goes There?” not with a slavish dedication to the original source material, but attention to what matters.  He skillfully retains the elements of paranoia and thoughtful discussions about how the creature replicates other life forms, as well as speculation about the thing’s origins.  MacReady makes the simple but profound statement, “I know I’m human.”  Being an original and not a copy means something.  What makes us still “us?”  This seems fairly abstract unless we consider that our own cells are continually dying off and being replaced by new cells.  Technically speaking, we’re not the same person we were before.  Carpenter does not explicitly engage in an ontological discussion of the nature of our existence.  His intent is to shock, to scare, and to keep us guessing.  Once the alien organism is loose, we can never be sure who’s real, and who’s a copy.  Is MacReady truly human, or is he really the thing, trying to deceive the remaining humans?

There’s no denying the fact that Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World was a landmark film for its time, as well as a tremendous influence for John Carpenter.  Clips from the original film are featured prominently in John Carpenter’s Halloween, foreshadowing the remake to come. Carpenter’s The Thing is the rare remake that surpasses the original Howard Hawks version.  This might sound blasphemous in some circles, but Carpenter’s version remains more faithful to Campbell’s paranoid vision.  By comparison, Hawks’ version seems the more conventional monster flick, with its “monster on the loose” theme.

Early criticism of The Thing introduced the word “nihilistic” to my vocabulary.  Although this word could be used to superficially describe John Carpenter’s film, it’s also indicative of his uncompromising vision.  The Thing is unrelentingly grim – no one’s going to get the warm fuzzies from this film, but the tone is necessary to convey the utter hopelessness of the situation.  True horror dwells in the realization that a situation might be unwinnable.  The characters in the film face two equally unsavory prospects: complete assimilation or total annihilation.  Another uncompromising element is the all-male cast – not the most marketable decision, but once again, true to the source material.

Rob Bottin created some of the most innovative practical effects work in movie history, with a craftsmanship that could not be matched by CGI.  The effects were literally handmade instead of being rendered on a computer screen.  There is an aesthetic, tactile difference that holds up remarkably well nearly 30 years later.

The Thing stands out as one of John Carpenter’s best films, as well as one of the best examples of the successful marriage of horror and science fiction.  Ironically, another remake is in the works.  I’m doubtful that it could be as effective, but I guess that’s just my own bias against remakes.  John Carpenter’s film is the definitive version of Campbell’s story, and remains as effective today as the first time I saw it during its original, underappreciated theatrical run.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pet Peeves About Pets

Today’s rant is courtesy of guest blogger, Lassie:

I have a bone to pick with Hollywood (Get it? Bone?  Sorry… dog humor.).  Don’t get me wrong.  They’ve kept me in Milk Bones since I was a pup, not to mention a series of starring roles with humans playing second fiddle, so I can’t really complain about my treatment.  It’s my other animal brethren who haven’t fared quite so well over the years.  Specifically, I take issue with the gratuitous nature of using pets as plot devices.

Unless it’s a Disney production, it’s a safe bet that pets exist in movies only to die.  This shamelessly manipulative plot device has been used for years.  Take a beloved family pet (the cuter the better), capture the audience’s attention with an establishing scene, giving viewers ample time to respond with the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs,” then watch the pet meet its untimely demise.  It’s a surefire way to play with the audience’s sympathies, and a blatant means of telegraphing villainous intent.

There are numerous examples of such flagrant offenses to cinema -- too many to catalogue here.  Besides, do you have any idea how difficult it is to type with paws instead of hands?  One of the worst instances in recent memory involves a kids’ fluffy bunny in Fatal Attraction.  The bunny is introduced earlier in the film, only to end up in a boiling pot.  It’s not really central to the story, and exists only to demonize the Glenn Close character.  In the more recent film Splice (okay, this one’s from Canada, not Hollywood, so sue me), a cat is befriended by the humanoid Dren, only to be arbitrarily dispatched by the creature later on.  It’s a cheap ploy by the filmmakers that only makes her seem more unsympathetic. 

Gratuitous animal death is not necessarily confined to bad movies.  The German shepherds in Terminator 2 and the original Halloween are dispatched because they’re unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – in the script.  In Drag Me to Hell, the adorable kitten becomes an object of sacrifice.  Admittedly, the next example doesn’t even stem from Hollywood, but it’s obvious that the compulsion to toy with an audience’s emotions has spread overseas.  For me, the most disturbing scene in Lady Vengeance, was when the protagonist shot a puppy at point blank range, presumably intended to demonstrate her cold-bloodedness, and determination to carry out her revenge against the man who ruined her life.  Thanks, Chan-wook Park!  I could have happily lived a lifetime without ever seeing that.  Were these movies better because of the scenes?  That’s debatable.  The question is, what would it have been like without the animal deaths?  What if the pets had never been in the story in the first place?  Would the director have been incapable of realizing his vision?

So, are pet deaths in movies always unwarranted, and a needless distraction?  I would answer with a resounding no -- not if it’s in the service of the story.   Case in point: the classic Disney tear-jerker Old Yeller.  I doubt I’m giving much away by saying that he dies at the end.  Old Yeller is about the titular dog and his relationship with a young boy. We have invested ourselves in this canine character, and when he dies, our emotions have been earned.

Oh, yeah, and while we’re on the subject of Disney, enough with those Buddy movies!  They’re giving dog flicks a bad name, and keeping serious animal actors like myself out of work!  And don’t get me started on Beverly Hills Chihuahua.  But I digress… This is supposed to be a rant about animal cruelty, not cruelty to humans.

Case studies have indicated that psychopathology often begins with cruelty to animals.  The senseless torture and killing of animals is like a gateway drug to violence towards our fellow humans.  Yet we see this sort of thing depicted in movies all the time.  Why is this acceptable?  For a society that professes to love pets so much, Hollywood sure enjoys killing them off.  Hey, I love repetition.  I never get tired of chasing cats or greeting people by sticking my muzzle in inappropriate places, but even I can’t stand to see this overused cliché. 

Well, I gotta run.  If you’ll excuse me, I have some butts to sniff.  This is Hollywood, after all.  Woof!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Tunnel

(2011) Directed by Carlo Ledesma; Written by Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey; Starring: Bel Deliá, Andy Rodoreda, Steve Davis and Luke Arnold;
Available formats: Free BitTorrent download at:; or DVD (available for purchase)

Rating: *** ½

The Tunnel is a standout entry in the otherwise overcrowded pseudo-documentary/horror subgenre.  Although the film isn’t exceptionally original, the marketing strategy for The Tunnel certainly merits attention.  Instead of going through normal distribution channels, the Australia-based filmmakers decided to take the unusual step of releasing it online for free via BitTorrent.  Visitors to the official web site are encouraged to purchase their own piece of the film, frame by frame, or a DVD hard copy, helping the filmmakers to raise revenue.  It’s certainly a risky venture, but it’s a gamble that The Tunnel’s producers hope will pioneer how future releases are distributed and displayed to the movie-going public.  Okay, that’s all fine and dandy, but how’s the damn movie?  It’s surprisingly effective, overall. 

Through an opening montage of vintage photos and some brief exposition, we learn about Sydney’s vast network of underground tunnels, which were largely constructed during the early part of the 20th century.  Some of these tunnels were utilized for the city’s subway system, while other portions were sequestered as World War II bomb shelters.  Miles of unused (and sometimes forgotten) tunnels remain, the result of construction that was abandoned for one reason or another.  As a solution to Sydney’s burgeoning water problems, the municipal planners look to an enormous subterranean reservoir located beneath the city, in an area that intersects with the unused tunnels.  One of the impediments to the project’s success is the large population of homeless people who reside in this uninviting environment.  The city planners fear the public relations nightmare that would likely ensue from their displacement, and the local government is reluctant to speak about the issue.  After learning about the unexplained disappearances of several homeless people in the tunnels, television reporter Natasha Warner is determined to investigate, and heighten the public’s awareness of a situation that’s developing literally beneath their feet.

After her attempts to legally gain access to the tunnels are stonewalled by unsympathetic government officials, Natasha resorts to less kosher methods.  Natasha and her camera crew surreptitiously break into one of the numerous maintenance tunnels to enter Sydney’s underground labyrinth, and it soon becomes apparent that they’ve got more than they bargained for.  Finding their way in without anyone else’s knowledge means they’re free to explore on their own, but without the benefit of any outside help.

The Tunnel’s cast of unfamiliar faces works to the film’s advantage, with performances that seem credible, but not amateurish.  The acting generally appears spontaneous and natural.  Bel Deliá is good as the ambitious reporter Natasha Warner, whose single-minded desire to bring back a noteworthy story leaves her blind to the costs involved.  Her cameraman Steve Miller is played by Steve Davis, in his first acting role.  His real-life experience as a cameraman in the first Gulf War lends some veracity to his character, who’s seen it all and done it all.  Early in the film, he recounts one of his wartime exploits, and it’s clearly established that he doesn’t always let personal safety get in the way of a good time.  The rest of the reporting crew is rounded out by Andy Rodoreda as Peter Ferguson, and Luke Arnold as “Tangles.”  The men in the crew share a casual camaraderie that contrasts the thinly veiled animosity that they feel for Natasha.  Although the motivations for their cliquey behavior initially appears to be little more than old-school “boys club” sexism, it’s apparent that their skepticism about Natasha isn’t entirely misplaced.  As they continue their ill-advised foray into the tunnels, their personal safety begins to take a backseat to Natasha’s obsessive brand of journalism.

The Tunnel covers territory that’s a bit too familiar at times.  The pseudo-documentary format, replete with “shaky cam” footage has become something of a cliché in recent years, and I couldn’t lose the feeling that I had seen this before.  The juxtaposition of talking head interviews with “found footage” closely resembled another recent, arguably less effective Australian pseudo-documentary, Lake Mungo.  As with similar types of movies, you’re left to wonder why anyone would keep filming when things really started getting out of hand.  It’s too bad that The Tunnel ultimately whets our collective appetite with a premise, and fails to follow through completely.  The filmmakers work a little too hard to adhere to “just the facts” of the horrific events, without pausing to speculate about the origins of what lies in wait beneath Sydney.

Nitpicks aside, it’s easy to point out what The Tunnel gets right.  Director Carlo Ledesma knows how to kick up the creep factor, as Natasha and her reporting crew become hopelessly lost in the subterranean tunnels.  The horrors that they eventually encounter in the tunnels reminded me favorably of the definitive spelunking nightmare flick, The Descent.   There are some genuinely frightening scenes as they stumble around in the dark, looking for a way out.  As they venture further into the increasingly claustrophobic tunnels, it’s apparent that they’re completely out of their element, and their mistakes will lead to gruesome consequences. 

It’s tough to ignore The Tunnel’s untraditional means of reaching out to a global audience, which for good or ill will be inextricably linked to the movie itself.  Will it pay off?  It remains to be seen whether or not this model will pave the way for more films released in a similar manner in the future, or if this is simply a marketing dead end.  Regardless of the outcome, the filmmakers can rest assured that they have crafted a fine, if not particularly groundbreaking, addition to the horror genre.