‘The Deep Dark’ Fantastic Fest Review – Claustrophobic Thriller Struggles to Maintain Tension

Horror

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Few fears are more universal than claustrophobia. Many of us have probably experienced that twinge of anxiety when elevator doors close behind us, but few of us have likely ever been down in the depths of a coal mine, where the elements at play have a potentially fatal outcome. This fear is what writer/director Mathieu Turi tries to tap into in The Deep Dark, to moderately successful results.

Following an 1856-set prologue in which a group of miners encounters a mysterious creature before an explosion traps them all underground, we are propelled forward 100 years to 1956, where Amir (Amir El Kacem) leaves his home country of Morocco out of financial necessity. He is sent to Pas-de-Calais to work in the worst mine in France, known as the Devil’s Island. Shortly after his orientation, he’s assigned to a group led by Roland (Samuel Le Bihan, Frontier(s), Brotherhood of the Wolf) that has been ordered to accompany a professor (Jean-Hugues Anglade) under the pretense of collecting samples. Shortly after entering the depths, a cave-in traps the miners 1,000 meters underground where they must find a way out, and escape the sinister presence lurking in the tunnels.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Deep Dark sounds like a gender-flipped version of Neil Marshall’s masterpiece The Descent, because that’s basically what it is (we even get a climactic “climb over a giant hill of bones” moment for good measure). Throw in a dash of As Above, So Below and Stephen Sommer’s 1999 remake of The Mummy and that’s The Deep Dark in a nutshell. And that’s really the bulk of the problem: The Deep Dark will constantly remind you of other (better) films. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad film. Far from it: it’s just an unremarkable one.

Turi (Méandre), who has worked as an assistant director for Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Sommers, Guy Ritchie and Luc Besson, proves he’s competent at filming the action-oriented scenes, but he struggles to maintain tension throughout. Part of this is due to the fact that he blows his wad far too early, showing the creature in its entirety once it’s reintroduced into the film around the halfway mark. This leaves little room for surprises as the creature starts to pick off our characters one by one. Similarly, the darkness of the mines is underutilized, which feels odd for a film called The Deep Dark, but the tunnels are too brightly lit to achieve a foreboding sense of atmosphere.

Pacing is an issue as well. The Deep Dark takes a while to get going, as it spends much of its first hour introducing Amir (and, by proxy, the audience) to the ways of the miners. Character development is slight, as the film categorizes our protagonists by race or body type (the Spaniard, the fat one, etc.), so by the time we actually get down into the mine, we don’t really know anything about them, making it difficult to care about them once the carnage starts. Still, performances are all solid, with each of our main players selling the direness of their situation well enough.

All of that being said, the creature design of The Deep Dark is stunning. Without going too much into spoiler territory, there are some Lovecraftian elements at play, and all of the effects are, seemingly, practical. Gorehounds will be delighted by the head-rippings, body-crushings, and an Alien 3-like creature reveal from the belly of a gutted horse. Turi does not hold back in this department, and these moments make for the film’s most successful sequences.

Production design is equally impressive, with the mines presenting a labyrinth of tunnels that instills a since of disorientation in the viewer as much as it does the characters. What’s lacking, however, is sense of claustrophobia. We spend most of the latter half of the film in the aforementioned tunnels, all of which feel a little too open for the effect Turi is trying to achieve. A late-in-the-game location change also shows promise, but we spend mere minutes there before heading back into the tunnels.

The Deep Dark may not reach the highest highs of other, similar films, but it’s a perfectly adequate way to spend part of an afternoon. Exemplary creature design and gag-inducing practical effects make up for the the film’s workmanlike quality in other areas, so consider this a mild recommendation.

The Deep Dark made its international premiere at Fantastic Fest. Release info TBA.

3 skulls out of 5

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