Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
One does not gently enter a Dick Maas movie. The Dutch filmmaker has never had a knack for subtlety, nor has he ever felt obliged to mince words. Maas has been astounding audiences with his own unique brand of cinematic peculiarity since his debut feature The Lift. And since that formidable introduction, the auteur has wanted to remake his story about a killer elevator.
Maas’ wish came true when he finally wrote a new script that acts as both a redo and a sequel. According to Fangoria 223, Warner Bros approached him about an English adaptation back in the eighties, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties did Maas get around to updating perhaps his most famous movie to date. This time around, though, there’s actually a budget to play around with, and the cast included recognizable genre actors like Michael Ironside and Ron Perlman, not to mention an emerging talent everyone would eventually know thanks to another famous early-2000s remake. So, with all the proper ingredients involved, the stage was set for a do-over of one of cinema’s greatest B-movies.
Prior to the big boom of horror remakes that overtook the aughts, Down came and went without little notice until Naomi Watts’ The Ring scored big at the box office. This led to Artisan giving Down a promotional makeover for the movie’s DVD release: it was now titled was The Shaft and the artwork was clearly made with that of The Ring in mind. Anyone intrigued by the cover was in for something unlike anything they’d ever seen before.
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As with other localizations, the sinister events of Down are set in familiar American surroundings with an English-speaking cast. The fictional Millennium Building looks and operates like any other high-rise in New York City, but there’s something that makes it stand out: people are suddenly dying under mysterious circumstances and the deaths have something to do with the fancy elevators within. As more commuters die in horrible fashion, a nosy reporter and an obtuse elevator technician hunt for the reason why. What they find is beyond the realm of logic.
Just like in the original movie, lightning is the cause of the elevator’s malevolent behavior. In fact, the remake doesn’t stray all that far from the predecessor as far as basic narrative goes. Signature scenes like the watchman’s decapitation, the girl’s near-miss encounter with the elevator, and the blind man’s fatal fall are all reproduced with adequate success all thanks to Maas’ access to greater funds and then-advanced digital technology. Any argument about the movie’s action and visual effects taking precedence over a coherent story is moot naturally because of the subject matter.
Naomi Watts had just finished taping a pilot for David Lynch — this would later become Mulholland Drive after the director decided to do a feature instead of another TV series —when she landed the part of reporter Jennifer Evans. Maas caught wind of her work in Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering and thought the British actress looked perfect for the role. Just imagine if her character in The Ring was childless, brash, and prone to nonsensical outbursts with a hint of narcissism. She delivers the corniest of lines (“Look out, Libyans!“) with just the right amount of conviction to suggest she’s capable of better movies. Joining her is James Marshall who is best known for his character in Twin Peaks. He plays a blue-collared everyman named Mark Newman who works for the elevator company; he does all that he can with what little he’s given. Character-actors Perlman and Ironside do what they do best and play dubious men whose combined inaction is the equivalent of the mayor’s unethical behavior in Jaws.
Maas adds some American flavor to the evil elevator’s genesis. Back when he wrote The Lift, he was inspired by news of scientists using living material to make computer chips. It may not have been his intention, but Maas was perpetuating a common fear of science going horribly wrong. Something as mundane as an elevator was turned into a nightmare all because of man’s need to make things better without any kind of regard for nature. On top of dolphin brains being mentioned as the basis for the elevator’s sentience, there’s also the shoehorned element of voodoo that wasn’t in the original movie.
The visual effects supervised by Tim McGovern (Total Recall) will invite plenty of cheers and laughter. One of the movie’s greatest scenes of elevator-related carnage has to be the random skater who’s sucked up into the shaft from the parking garage, ejected at the building’s top, and then ultimately flung to his bloody death down below. Another highlight sees a freight full of unsuspecting passengers clinging to dear life as the floor beneath them opens up while in motion. Maas outdoes himself in a scene that no one even dies in — several pregnant women give birth while under duress inside their demonic transportation. The icing on the cake is how this segues into an egg frying on a diner griddle. It’s truly outlandish moments like this that keep the movie’s sluggish runtime bearable.
Maas’ distinct type of weirdness translates surprisingly well in Down. He can’t write profound dialogue to save his life, but he knows how to party. Black humor, grisly deaths, and absurd plot points told with a straight face — these things are why this obscurity timelessly entertains. Maas’ aptitude for stone-faced cheesiness shouldn’t be overlooked when naming remarkable genre directors, either. Above all, the self-aware Dutchman is unrivaled when orchestrating everything needed for grade-A schlock.