If you think that the idea of a killer lift-shaft has been done before then you’d be right. In 1983, the Dutch director Dick Maas came up with a clever little horror thriller called The Lift and made the most of the various opportunities for claustrophobic and vertiginous scares that the setting offered. A couple of years ago, for reasons presumably financial rather than artistic, he remade the film in America and the result, Down, has now been released straight to rental DVD in the UK.
The original Amsterdam setting has been moved to New York and the film now largely takes place in a (pre-9/11) skyscraper named the Millennium Building. A series of strange electrical faults and odd behaviour by the lifts begins to turn sinister when a group of pregnant women, returning from a class, are subjected to intense heat which causes them to give birth. Amid increasing media interest, two repairmen from the Meteor Elevator Company – Mark Newman (Marshall) and Jeffrey (Thal) - arrive to investigate but can find nothing wrong. Soon afterwards, however, an obnoxious blind man and his guide dog are killed and a trespassing skater is swallowed up by the lift, blown out onto the top floor and catapulted out of the window to his death. Clearly, something is awry and Mark begins to investigate, assisted and hindered by annoying tabloid journalist Jennifer Evans (Watts). He begins to uncover a link between the lift’s behaviour and the shadowy research department at Meteor Elevators headed by German scientist Steinberg (Ironside).
It has to be said right away that Down doesn’t work either as a comedy or a thriller. The comic ambitions are clear from the outset, where two slobbish security guards spy on a generously endowed prostitute, and by the time we meet our two idiotic heroes then it’s equally clear that the film has neither the timing nor the wit to raise any intentional laughs. The dialogue is so banal that it displays every sign of having been composed by the cinematic equivalent of those tabloid hacks whose brains have been so pickled in booze that they spend their time composing captions for page 3. Lines from which any residual surprise or wit has been drained well before filming commenced are bounced between the actors with all the grace of two drunken football supporters trapped in a revolving door. This might not be such a problem if the film worked as a horror-thriller. The original had a sense of bizarrely surreal nightmare which overcame the problems of the plot but the remake plays everything for over-the-top effects which are neither amusing nor remotely scary. The plot plods mechanically from one predictable moment to another and the revelations of corporate intrigue are rarely unexpected. There’s a slight reminder of Cronenbergian horror floating around but little is made of it. You can imagine the master Canadian making something of the material but Dick Maas really doesn’t and the second half of the film is so flimsy that the reasonably tense climax comes too late to be of any benefit.
This is something of a disappointment given that Maas, in his first two films, displayed a wit and visual imagination that marked him out as a talent to watch. In particular, his 1988 thriller Amsterdamned is a demented chase round Amsterdam after a psychotic diver that manages to be joltingly scary and intentionally amusing. There are moments in Down which suggest his talent, notably the way he manages to make the imposing lift-shaft a character in itself - and one far more engaging than the moronic handyman who are meant to be the heroes. There are some nice crane shots too and the set-ups often have a quirky feel that promises something more interesting than what we get. He also throws away some potentially gruesome black comedy through mistiming or misguided good taste. The only scene which really takes flight is the totally unnecessary and thoroughly amusing killing of the blind man. One or two other moments manage to work too – a nice decapitation, the death of the skater – but not enough to pull the film together.
The script is an obstacle which would have been hard for anyone to get something out of but Maas doesn’t help matters with his direction of the actors. James Marshall was always something of a spare part in his earlier films and he does nothing here to suggest any capability as a leading man whatsoever. When he’s on screen you admire the scenery, think about what to have for dinner, nibble your fingernails – anything, in fact, but look at him. You couldn’t exactly describe Eric Thal as the life and soul of the party either. Naomi Watts tries a bit harder and she gives her thankless part a bit of vitality but there’s nothing here to suggest the talent she subsequently demonstrated in Mulholland Drive. The supporting cast contains some superb actors but they’re not given much to do. Ron Perlman is completely wasted and Michael Ironside – so memorable in Scanners and Starship Troopers - doesn’t get the chance to do anything much apart from look sinister. He’s still the most stylish actor in the film. Dan Hedaya is quite amusing as the PR man trying to rescue the reputation of the building and Edward Herrmann gets one nice bit of physical comedy. But the presence of these stalwarts merely serves to confirm that the film is a wasted opportunity.
What saves the film from being a total dud is a certain sense of the ridiculous. This nods in the direction of some better films admittedly - Deep Rising for example – but it does mean that it’s devoid of pomposity. However, the comparison with Deep Rising is instructive. That film had a clichéd plot, no real characters and dodgy CGI effects, but it managed to be a small triumph because of the tension it built, the straight-faced performances and the witty dialogue. If Down had taken a bit more care in those departments, it might have been within pitching distance of being a camp pleasure. As it is, it’s a disappointment.
Mosaic Movies are not renowned for their quality releases so it’s a nice surprise that the quality of the transfer on Down is so good. Nothing else interesting about the disc mind you, but it’s a start.
The film has been transferred to disc in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a bad image at all, I’m pleased to say, with a good level of detail, vivid colours and no serious problems with grain or artifacting. It does have a slightly bland look to it, usually characteristic of television films, but this is due to a lack of visual flair in the production rather than a problem with the disc.
The soundtrack is a pretty good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that has some good surround effects, strong music and clear dialogue. Nothing special here but it’s certainly a competent track.
The only extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer. Interestingly, the film was released to DVD in America earlier this year under the title The Shaft, with a suspiciously Ring like title design and Naomi Watts prominently featured on the front cover. We’ve done a little better than our friends across the pond as we do at least get the film in its correct framing rather than panned and scanned like the US Artisan disc.
There are 10 chapter stops and no subtitles.
Down is an extremely silly film but it has the sole advantage of being aware of how daft it is. Worth a look, if only for the satisfaction of seeing a skater dude splattered against a pavement having been violently ejected through a 90th floor window. Now, that’s what I call good old-fashioned showmanship.