BR: Lift, The / De lift (1983) + Down / The Shaft (2001)

January 22, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Blue Underground

Region: All

Released:  October 31, 2017

Genre:  Horror / Killer Elevator

Synopsis: Recent grisly elevator killings in an office building may or may not be tied to a supernatural entity or man-made elements.

Special Features: Audio Commentary with writer-director Dick Maas and editor Hans von Dongen / “Going Up” Interview with actor Huub Stapel (10 mins.) / 2003 Short Film “Long Distance” (5 mins.) / 2 theatrical trailers / Posters & Stills Gallery / 18-page colour booklet with liner notes by Chris Alexander / Reversible Sleeve Art / DVD edition.

 


 

Review:

Going up: The Lift (1983)

Singled out as Holland’s first horror feature, Dick Maas’ directorial debut is so low key that it’s easy to overlook the small directorial nuances which make The Lift stand out from the American counterparts Maas sought to evoke.

There are few killer elevator films out there – it’s a unique genre – but Maas wanted to apply a gloss and faster pace to his shocker in which people are seemingly lured to their deaths by a force controlling three elevators in a business edifice. The reason for the weirdness is pretty preposterous, but the film’s low key mood is maintained so meticulously that Maas manages to pull off the big reveal.

Stage-trained Huub Stapel had just graduated from drama school when he Maas spotted him in a play and offered him the role of Felix Adelaar, a blue collar maintenance man for an elevator company. Felix is called in by building management to find the electrical or mechanical issue that trapped four half-naked people between floors, but he finds nothing unusual.

He’s soon hounded by investigative reporter Mieke de Beer (Willeke van Ammelrooy), and the pair visit the head office of the microprocessor manufacturer in the hope of finding some clues to the ongoing deaths that include a blind man and a security guard. The film stops cold for a protracted visit to a university computer science professor who delivers a mouthful of expository quackery; his repetitive use of “microchip” is very quaint, characterizing the system’s micro-circuitry as something both mystical and as a man-made creation which if accidentally given enough potential power, could become a sentient, biological entity (hint-hint).

Even though Maas was trying to evoke the slickness of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (think of the elevators as multiple Jaws maws), his characters have a surprising degree of nuances that elevate them a bit above genre archetypes. Felix loves his family, but there’s a pre-existing distance between him and wife Saskia (Josine van Dalsum); their entire scenes are performed by the actors who understand that this is the couple’s 10th and final year together rather than cliched bickering.

Felix is ostensibly a blue collar professional who stays calm when building management is breathing down his back, and naturally gets testy when his work ethic is questioned by his boss. He’s the unlikely hero who’s also the most likely to stop the madness because he never loses his cool, and thinks of the simplest most logical solution to a complex problem.

Smaller characters also have minor moments are subtext. Even the short scenes between the blind man and a travel agent reveals a sales agent probably exploiting his client by making him sign questionable contracts through a self-gratifying smirk than any words.

Lift has a few graphic bouts of gore, but it’s also a procedural thriller: Maas has Felix’s own investigation move from mere mechanical mystery to an impromptu investigation with reporter de Beer, and the police investigation exists to distract audiences from the horror; had Maas retained the cops to the end, he’d have been saddled with too many characters and thin side-plots to converge in the finale, so as it stands, it’s one man’s refusal to give up when his fine professional instincts are telling him there’s more to the murder mystery than a too-obvious suspect.

Maas’ background in music videos pays off with really striking compositions – cinematographer Marc Felperlaan’s eye offers sleek lighting and low-key colour schemes which don’t date the film as severely as rival shockers of the era. The neon purple and pink lighting inside the elevators is soft and low key, and the décor is minimal, emphasizing clean geometric lines that allow Felperlaan to bathe the sets in clean, singular colours instead of a mess of garish hues.

Even the clothes are hairstyles lack the oversized stature, gaudy bling, and severe geometric shapes typical of 1980s shockers; pretty much everyone’s a middle-class worker lacking the funds and time to splurge.

Blue Underground’s Blu-ray is utterly gorgeous, and both the lighting and Maas’ use of massive dramatic close-ups are razor sharp in this first-rate transfer. Maas frequently transcends his killer elevator concept by crafting some great shocks, but the best don’t involve audio stabs or gore. Near the end when Felix is examining an elevator shaft with a worker’s light rig, he steps out of frame, and seconds later steps back into a graphic close-up. When he grasps his neck with his right had for an extending deep think, his palm initially pops into frame as though a human killer is reaching out to strangle him.

The BR includes the original English mono mix with classically sterile dubbing, and the original Dutch track which has been upgraded to a 5.1 mix; the film was originally released in mono, so the rear surrounds kick in just a handful of times, such as a lighting storm cutaway, and the off-screen screaming of the little girl seen in the film’s lurid poster art.

Pity there’s no isolated score track – Maas’ synth music isn’t great nor awful, but there’s a few decent cues in his otherwise sparse soundtrack – but Maas and ace editor Hans van Dongen join moderator Andre Gregory for a steady recollection of the film’s genesis, and trying to create a commercial shocker when Holland’s film industry was still very young.

An interview with still-handsome Huub Stapel has the actor recalling his involvement and feelings about the project while steering a boat through Amsterdam’s picturesque canals, and there’s the original Dutch trailer which should be avoided at all cost prior to seeing the film because every major jump is packed into the spoiler-laden promo!

Also included is Long Distance (2003), a 4 min. short film that’s brief, concise, consists of just a handful of shots, and ends with a bittersweet twist.

Following Lift, Maas made his next best-known film, Amsterdamned (1988), and interpolated between comedies came Do Not Disturb (1999), Saint (2010), Quiz (2010), and Prey (2016), but in 2001 Maas felt the timing was right to revisit is breakthrough feature in English, and what emerged was a much longer, bigger, and elaborate version.

 

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Blood in an Elevator: Down / The Shaft (2001)

Special Features: Audio Commentary with writer-director Dick Maas and stunt coordinator Willem de Beukelaer / 2001 Making-Of Featuretet (10 mins.) / 2001 behind-the-scenes footage (152 mins.) with optional commentary by Dick Maas, Willem de Beukelaer, and David Gregory / 18-page colour booklet with liner notes by Michael Gingold / Reversible Sleeve Art / DVD edition.

 

Essentially the same story set in busy NYC, Maas’ remake is set in the Millennium Building, an Empire State variant boasting similar Art Deco curves and marble – one suspects Maas and his set designer took a slow tour of the building, scribbled down details and small procedural nuances as to what tourists and delivery men would negotiate to visit the peak and offices, respectively – but with casting agent Mike Fenton handling the selection o f U.S. actors, Down has one of the most ridiculously delightful cast for what’s an upscale B-movie.

The kills from the original are more or less intact, but the characters have somewhat split up for a big city scenario in which everyone is having a very, very bad day. Tonally, the characters are as fast-taking, sleep-deprived, irritable, and profane as the poor bastards in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), but Maas dialogue isn’t as vicious or clever; there are plenty of smart-ass quips, but there’s a steady flow vulgar gags always anchored to sex and bodily functions, ensuring few of his big city caricatures have any depth.

For B-film connoisseurs, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because Maas keeps the pacing fast, the edits sharp (courtesy of Maas’ regular cutter Bert Rijkelijkhuizen), and the gorgeous Steadicam cinematography (Marc Felperan again) perpetually fluid. The only weak creative spot is Paul M. van Brugge’s score which is orchestral, but was heavily dialed down in the final mix.

With a bigger cast, Maas story begins with two elevator mechanics: Desert Storm veterans Mark Newman (Twin Peaks’ James Marshall), and best buddy / expecting father Jeffrey (The Puppetmasters’ Eric Thal), who make repeated visits to the Millennium Building as a blind man and his dog, street-racing bike couriers, an exercise class of pregnant women, and security men respectively tumble, are ejected at high altitude, collectively break water, and lose their head.

Building manager Milligan (Edward Herrmann!) isn’t happy he’s losing clients afraid of lethal elevator issues, while local detective Lt. McBain (Dan Hedaya!) hangs around to offer up grim elevator statistics. (Unlike Lift, the recurring cop loses his sycophant partner, and Hedaya has just a few scenes.)

Mark’s boss Mitchell (Ron Perlman!) is still in cahoots with the bio-chip’s creator Gunther Steinberg (Scanners’ Michael Ironside!), but the character has less screen time and isn’t as forceful in putting Mark on leave. New character Jeffrey exists to a) remind us Mark is a disillusioned war vet still new to the job after wandering the street for work, and b) take the place of the other dead guard who tumbles from the elevator’s trap door / may have committed suicide.

We also meet Jeffrey’s pregnant wife Mildred (Basket Case 2’s Kathryn Meisle), and Maas’ deepens the corporate subterfuge by having Jeffrey and a former partner killed by the bio-chip firm to hide their out-of-control creation. (The dead partner’s widow also makes an appearance in a weird voodoo room.)

Maas’ years of making comedies undoubtedly gave him the confidence to play with Lift’s original premise and characters, playing them almost for laughs and larding the film with more than a few anti-German caricatures: Gunther is a Naziesque villain, the blind man is a sleazeball whose hair is tinted by a hairdresser frustrated with his groping, and the building’s daycare is managed by a cigarette smoking Nazi matron who curses and berates toddlers ‘destined’ to become drug addicts and hookers. (She’s also steps in for Lift‘s mom who pulls a little girl away from the killer elevator doors.)

Perhaps Maas’ most ambitious goosing of his original script is giving it both a Die Hard / disaster film spin – the city’s police bring in helicopters, armored vehicles, troops with missile launchers – and some very timely quips that killed the film’s chances at a domestic theatrical release, especially in NYC.

There’s a short exchange between two combat dressed cops about the Twin Towers’ prior bombing and Osama Bin Laden’s involvement, which relates to Mark’s Desert Storm background… so… while the threat is still a bio-chip gone AWOL from the building’s elevator mainframe, Maas clearly tried to give the film more contemporary context, yet it predated the Sept. 11th attacks orchestrated by Bin Laden. The film premiered in May 2001 at Cannes and (incredibly) Sept. 6th in his native Holland and reportedly the U.S., but was pulled from theatres within a week after the Twin Towers attack. Although it didn’t do well in Holland, Down did receive wide home video distribution, and ultimately made its formal debut in the States on disc in early 2003.

Following the attacks, several film and TV productions shot in, around, and peppered with footage of the Twin Towers were put in limbo. In the case of the 2001-2002 season of Friends, shots of the towers were removed, while completed productions were delayed, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collatoral Damage (2002) and the Tim Allen comedy Big Trouble (2002); it took several years before 9/11 could be addressed on film, as with Peter Greengrass’ United 93 (2006).

The pre-9/11 references in Down are brief, but the physical WTC does feature in the film because it helps orient the geography of the story and characters, such as a distant shot with Steinberg and Mitchell having their secret talk in a parking lot by a riverside industrial tract.

Maas’ 2001 redo had a bigger budget (15 million Euros), and the CGI effects are selective but expertly done, making them still very effective between the still largely practical stunts and elevator effects. The severed head is digital – an improvement over the rubber noggin’ in Lift which appears already bruised from multiple takes – and a bisected guard is largely practical. Some CGI is also used in a sequence in which the floor tears and elevator patrons tumble and toss to the end of the shaft.

BU’s Blu-ray sports a fine transfer of the film in its proper 2.35:1 ratio (according to Maas, prior editions outside of Holland were 1.85:1), and like Lift the audio has been upgraded. The English 2.0 mix has been expanded to 5.1, but it’s very tepid compared to the French 5.1 dub track, which has more bass and better dynamics; there’s a sense the English 5.1 DTS mix is more rear surround than full channel, or perhaps the lack of oomph is due to a mastering issue.

The audio commentary with writer / director Dick Maas and stunt coordinator Willem de Beukelaer is highly informative, and although Maas feels this is the one film in his filmography he’d trim in the early scenes and tone down the broad humour, what was originally written off as a disappointment has aged extremely well.

Issues critics may have had between 2001-2003 are perhaps moot, as Down features exceptional stunts, fluid visual effects, and great action, and although the director feels Marshall’s version of the character wasn’t on track with the script, he’s fine. As mentioned at the onset, this is a shockingly well-cast film, packed with exceptional character actors. Ironside may have been selected due to his background playing colourful villains (especially Richter in Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 hit, Total Recall), but he manages to add some subtle depth to his character in the aforementioned riverside parking lot scene with Perlman: instead of posturing like a hard-edged super-villain, Ironside plays Steinberg as wounded, if not deeply offended that Mitchell has lost faith and trust in the former’s master plan.

Maas also admits that while it’s Steinberg’s bio-chip that’s responsible for all the weirdness, the unsubtle supernatural element stems from the suicide of Newman’s dead predecessor: his angry spirit may be adding to the grisly happenings, or perhaps there’s some fusion between a chip run amok and a very angry dead dude. Whatever.

Other Blu-ray extras include a vintage production featurette, and perhaps insanely, 152 mins. of raw behind-the-scenes footage as the cast & crew were shooting the visual effects.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s Blog — IMDB: The Lift (1983) / Down (2007)  — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

 


 

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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