Originally filmed in Summer 2000 (star Jason Flemyng shot the film concurrently with his role in From Hell), The Bunker has suffered the indignity of being stuck on the shelf for a couple of years waiting for distribution. Whilst that leads you to expect the worst, thankfully it turns out to be a very pleasant surprise, a subtle & creepy little film that deserves to have received more attention. Boasting a moody title sequence, the action cuts to a surprisingly tense sequence set in the Ardennes Forest – actually Black Park in Bucks, a favourite Hammer films shooting location.
Near the end of the Second World War, a small group of German soldiers take refuge from the advancing Allied forces on the German-Belgian border in a small bunker manned only by an old man & a young boy. Surrounded & low on ammo, they soon they realise the biggest threat comes not from the troops outside, but from some unseen force in the disused tunnel system beneath the bunker. Are the soldiers just haunted by the things they have committed in the name of war, have the enemy found their way into the tunnels, or is there something else at work?
Possibly the biggest strength of The Bunker is that it refuses to simply go in for simple easy shock tactics or gore effects, instead relying on subtle chills & an eerie and insidious atmosphere. Inspired by the films of Val Lewton, The Bunker is all about things half-glimpsed in the dark, a vaguely defined and ambiguous threat, & a claustrophobic air of general menace. The film boasts an amazing visual style, courtesy of debutant director Rob Green (clearly a name to watch for in the future), & cinematographer John Pardue, with some brief but impressive combat footage featuring bullets whizzing past from unseen attackers simply one highlight. The style consistently builds up throughout the film, for a final half hour that features a remarkably assured display of flickering light & shadow, which somehow manages not to overwhelm the film. For the budget, it looks simply amazing & has many strong images that linger in the mind. It gains considerably from a strong sound design too, a confident alternation of quiet & moments of frantic activity – the sound of a harmonica eerily drifting across the battlefield is one highly impressive moment. Russell Currie contributes a wonderful score that, whilst not very thematic, contains some eerie, expressionistic writing for chamber orchestra & choir that enhances the film no end.
There is also a clutch of very strong performances to be had in the film, from a not too familiar cast. I can’t think of a duff note, & many actors are given the chance to shine, notably in John Carlisle’s wonderfully evocative reading of the tale behind the site the bunker was built on. Although it’s certainly a little odd to hear all these German soldiers speaking with such strong British accents, it’s rather better than forcing them to try daft & distracting fake German voices. It’s also particularly nice to see a British film take a rather different perspective on the war, & for an exploration of what makes man turn against man – even if they are theoretically on the same side.
Having said all that though, there are some problems with the film. Notably, after such a brilliantly understated building of tension, it does go a little silly at the climax, which feels a touch hasty. There’s not outstaying your welcome, but the film is finishing just as it seems to be getting into it’s stride at last. Fans of modern slam-bang horror will be very disappointed by the relative lack of violence and gore, & as a whole it somehow seems a trifle underwhelming. There are perhaps a few too many flashbacks, & too many possible threats bandying around the films pleasing ambiguity sometimes wonders a little too far into just plain confusion. [MILD SPOILER] The idea that the Allied forces are in the tunnel – something they stick with throughout – seems rather fluffed, since the audience has seen enough to know that this is clearly not the case [END SPOILER].
Despite all that, this is a very pleasing & occasionally very impressive little film boasting many remarkably effective & chilling moments. It has a look & feel all of its own, which is unlike any other recent film I can think of. If it ultimately doesn’t add up to quite as much as you’d hope it’s going to, it’s still a good way of spending an hour and a half.
The UK DVD comes courtesy of Salvation (the first film they have distributed theatrically), with FILM 2000, & Addictive Films. The picture is very strong, with the bleached-out colours & slight grain being the intended look of the film. However, I feel I must mention that at three separate places in the film, the A/V completely broke down into a screen of white squares for a fraction of a second. I tried it on two different players & it happened on both at exactly the same places. I don’t know if this is a general problem with this disc, or just this copy – which was a rental with minor scratches on the surface – but it’d be remiss not to mention it. Audio is decent Dolby 2.0 English only.
First up for extras, there’s a commentary track by director Rob Green, cinematographer John Pardue & production designer Richard Campling. There are a couple of interesting titbits in this track – mostly about what was shot where & when – but it’s far from the most interesting track around, & your probably better off watching the film properly again, & sticking with the 20 minute “making of”. Much better than the standard promotional fluff, this is an entertaining & informative piece (with a great moment as Flemyng describes his character as “Jason Flemyng, only in a slightly different costume to in the last film.”), although it contains MAJOR spoilers, & should only be viewed after watching the film. You also get a stills gallery, a collection of review quotes, two completed deleted scenes, & one extended scene in raw take form. Best of all is the appearance of two of Rob Green’s short films. First is The Black Cat, a 17 minute reading of Poe’s tale, which gains from a fevered performance from Clive Perrott & is lovingly & elegantly shot. However, by sticking to Poe’s story, it’s rather wordy & isn’t as good as actually reading the story for yourself. In contrast, the 11 minute The Trick contains no dialogue, & is a slyly amusing little piece featuring some faces familiar from British comedies. They round out an impressive package, which is easy to recommend for those looking for something a little different.