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Blue Underground // R // October 31, 2017
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 22, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Sometimes, the history behind a film's release can be just as intriguing than the film itself, especially those that endured delays or cancellations for political of social reasons. Just this year, the premiere and release of Louis CK's I Love You, Daddy was indefinitely shelved due to sexual allegations against the comedian, while works that span from classics like Dr. Strangelove to modern blockbusters like V for Vendetta and Gangster Squad have been delayed, tailored and reshot in the wake of tragedy. A key source of this happening was in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, in which numerous movies edited around their footage of the World Trade Center and/or stalled their release several months out of respect. One that often gets overlooked in that particular conversation is Down -- aka The Shaft -- in which Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas remade his horror thriller from the ‘80s about a killer elevator in a tall building in New York. The release was cancelled, but perhaps it should've been anyway due to the inane, prolonged nature of the film itself.

The premise for Down requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than normal, emphasized early on by the initial attack unleashed by the quasi-sentient elevator of the Millennium Building upon its first victim(s). In response to the glitchy problems, resulting in concern from the manager that a malfunctioning elevator will detract guests, two repairmen from the METEOR company -- Mark (James Marshall) and Jeffrey (Eric Turner) -- are sent to investigate the disturbance and quickly fix the problem. This ends up not being the sole oddity going on in the Millennium Building, though, which draws the attention of newspaper reporter Jennifer (Naomi Watts). Events continue escalating in or near the elevator, indicating a sentient presence has taken hold of the mechanisms and are lashing out at the guests. It's up to Mark and Jeffrey, possibly with the help of the plucky nuisance Jennifer, to sort the whole mess out.

What'll stand out most about Down is the cast, sporting two alumni of David Lynch's films -- James Marshall from Twin Peaks and Naomi Watts from Mulholland Drive -- and a slew of distinct character actors ranging from Michael Ironside and Edward Hermann to Ron Perlman. The building blocks are there for a supernatural thriller with attitude and dramatic credibility, especially considering the cult-film status of Dick Maas' early-‘80s production as its foundation, but the juvenile dramatic rhythm within the initial scene involving two security guards, one of whom immediately anthropomorphizes the elevator, quickly sends things in the wrong direction. In getting the film closer to that magic two-hour Hollywood runtime, unlike the original's tight 90 minutes, the reworked script fills out the story with bumbling, inessential dialogue that masquerades as character development leading into to the elevator's oddities. Awkward direction and superfluous scripting gets Down off to a shaky start, and not in a good way.

Despite the Millennium Building being a high-profile and popular location -- increased traffic and, thus, an increase in potential victims -- the elevator can't exactly move around and seek victims, which makes it problematic to create tension around the threat it poses. Similar to the moving parts of certain haunted house-style movies, Down focuses on the mystery and history behind how an elevator shaft and compartment could transform into a discerning killing machine … and, trust me, very little goes unexplained behind why it does what it does, not leaving much to the imagination. To its disadvantage, the answers are B-movie nonsensical and, by and large, devoid of anything scary beyond how it shoehorns the moral dilemmas of human experimentation into the plotting. Aside from some eerie goop drippings, a few beheadings and dismemberments, and an encounter with a young girl that hearkens back to the original, very little works in terms of genuine horror or effective jump-scares.

That mostly leaves Down in a state of evaluation as a guilty-pleasure, so-bad-it's-good lark alongside the likes of Death Spa or Chopping Mall in the "possessed location" sub-subgenre, an odd place for it to linger considering it fits better with the aforementioned films than the ‘80s-era original. Frankly, there's too much solid talent involved to enjoy it on that level -- from Naomi Watts as a feisty reporter to Ron Perlman as the concerned, secretive manager of the elevator repair team -- all of whom are frequently and disappointedly guided by Maas into overly animated and unconvincing delivery of their dialogue. By the time the "controversial" content involving the 9/11-esque terrorist references finally arrive -- including an actual Bin Laden namedrop -- the spread-thin atmosphere and meandering character suspense have likely already exhausted one's interest level in Down. That makes even reaching its cultural curiosities about as tiresome as waiting for a high-rise elevator to arrive at the ground floor.

Video and Audio:

Blue Underground always does a phenomenal job of presenting cult classics -- regardless of the perceived quality of the film -- with a lot of love and care, and their presentation of Down furthers that reputation. Framed at 2.35:1 and contained within a 1080p AVC treatment, the decade-and-a-half old, budget-conscious cinematography brims with life closer to that of modern-shot films, constantly latching onto fine details, immensely satisfying contrast, and reputable color shades. Facial stubble, strands of hair, and the textiles of business suits are featured prominently through numerous close-up conversations, which are satisfyingly sharp and natural. Skin tones are ample, yet highly adaptive to different sorts of lighting. Contrast can veer from open and full of depth in brighter day time sequences, to richly dark and adaptive to shadows in the dark corners of the shaft. There's some flatness and lack of depth to the image here and there, but typically the contrast levels enhance the better-than-expected dimensionality. It's not a visually gripping picture, but Down gets a visual thumbs-up.

The rattling of a semi-sentient, murderous elevator shaft might sound like an ideal environment for a lot of assertive sound effects, but they're not quite as consistent or immersive as one might expect, spread thinly out over the two-hour film. When the DTS-HD Master Audio needs to pack a punch, it telegraphs it with gusto, slamming the surround stage with each sharp bang that emerges. A few resulting explosions from certain scenes offer strong, resonant heft, though there's at least one in which the impact's a bit high-pitched and thin for the sound effect. But, surprisingly, a lot of Down actually revolves around haughty suspenseful conversations and the surround ambience of numerous environments. Dialogue comes across clean and responsive throughout, if a tad anemic at certain points (especially noticeable with rougher instances of ADR), while the chatter of a busy hotel lobby floor, the downpour of rain, and the gusts of wind heard from the building's rooftop are crisp and gracefully occupy the rear channels. A French 5.1 DTS-HD track is also available, along with 2.0 tracks in English and French.

Special Features:

The one substantive discussion-based extra offered for Down arrives in the Audio Commentary with Dick Maas and Stunt Coordinator Willem de Beukelaer, moderated by David Gregory. Recorded earlier this year specifically for this release, the track-- with Gregory's assistance -- pokes and prods at the filmmaker for insights into constructing the film, which produces concise but objectively interesting factoids about the locations used and the NY-inspired sets constructed overseas, how Naomi Watts interacted with and responded to the film, how they expanded upon and exaggerated elements from the original, how Maas considers certain visual effects "better" in his first stab at the premise … and how much they fit into the budget for the use of an Aerosmith song. The discussion about the film's problematic encounter with 9/11 transpires much later on (around the 1:25:30 mark); Gregory's inquiries about how real-life events impacted the film itself and the release gets a few unique tidbits from Maas -- modeling the presidential speech from one in the ‘90s; why Bin Laden was mentioned -- but the discussion stays pretty superficial.

The other extras are The Making of Down (9:25, 4x3), which cobbles together behind-the-scenes footage of constructing the building and sets it to music, highlighted with intertitle cards that remark on the "floors" … though these are just pointing at what element's being featured in the footage. Visual effects progression, storyboards, green-screen shots and other neat bits are edited together into a partitioned, largely speechless piece beyond the clips included and the offscreen chatter involved. Exclusive to the Blu-ray, however, is over two and a half hours (!) of raw Behind the Scenes Footage (2:31:24, 4x3), which is … exactly how it sounds: extensive, thorough, but loses interest after watching for very long. There's also a series of Trailers -- one theatrical and two TV Spots -- and a Posters and Stills Gallery. A DVD Copy also comes with this release, as well as a photo-filled Booklet including an essay from Michael Gingold, entitled "Going 'Down' a Similar but Different Path".

Final Thoughts:

Make a reservation to watch Down as a curiosity more than anything else: an early performance from Naomi Watts in her Mulholland Drive and The Ring days, another example of a remake handled by the same director as the original, and a film that was commercially devastated by the writing's echoes of real-life events of 9/11. As an example of horror suspense involving a somehow possessed building, it's too stretched-out and exaggerated for its own good, depleting authenticity and an engaging pace from Dick Mass' second trip down the elevator shaft. Blue Underground's Blu-ray is spectacular, though, sporting ravishing audiovisual merits and a commentary and behind-the-scenes footage for aficionados. Give it a Rental just for the experience of seeing the flick, but don't go in expecting a worthwhile film; pursue Maas' original, The Lift, for a credible iteration of the premise.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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