The premise behind Andy Fetscher’s grimy but slickly shot survival-horror shocker “Urban Explorers” is informed by a scenario ripe with metaphorical allusions that reference the nebulous practice of psychogeography and the idea that by seeking out and wandering amongst areas of the modern urban experience normally made inaccessible to the general public, one might in some way also be prone to unearthing a city’s most painful secrets and the suppressed neurosis’ rooted in its dim past. This being a horror film, of course, the suggestion is that one might in the process also disturb some uglier aspect of that disremembered history, that was always best left alone to fester unmolested.
The metaphor here is made a vertical one: five modern, affluent, good-looking but not-so-bright youngsters, representing a nice Internationalist mix of contemporary personalities go on an illegal, unofficial tour, courtesy of a suitably Aryan-looking German guide called Kris (Max Riemelt), into ‘the dark side of Berlin’, below ground to explore the hidden network of 25,000 interconnecting tunnels that criss-cross the city and which take them ever deeper with each level of descent into a murky past full of wartime Nazi bunkers and relics of the city’s more recent divided past in the shape of old, underground GDR check-points – a reminder from the days of the Berlin wall. Of course, the inevitable implication of such a trip is that the past isn’t quite as dead as they’d imagined, and that their facetious dabbling with darker areas of the national psyche nudges some unpleasant long dormant areas of that past horrifyingly back into the spotlight.
None of our explorers look like the kind of people who have a natural interest in paying respectful homage to history as a reality that once was, or could have been; they’ve merely come to gawp voyeuristically with digital cameras and cell phones in tow, enticed by Kris’s promise of ‘something special’, which predictably centres on the allure of forbidden Nazi secret war rooms, bricked up by the authorities to discourage their becoming living shrines to the era for Neo-Nazis and which turn out to be adorned in creepily kitsch murals, celebrating the Aryan dawn with images of grinning Hitler youth and proud defenders of the motherland wielding swastika-crested shields like wings. The four frivolous youngsters -- an floppy-haired American youth called Denis (Nick Eversman), his slightly more intelligent Venezuelan girlfriend Lucia (Nathalie Kelley), dim French girl Marie (Catherine de Lean) and adventurous Korean Juna (Brenda Koo) – start their journey in a garish and loud Berlin techno nightclub and leave behind this, their natural environment, when they descend into the club basement, and from there are taken on a journey into an increasingly dank blue-lit underworld of cobwebs, mould and strategic shafts of improbable light emerging picturesquely from an unseen source -- which creates a stylish-enough ‘noir’ tinted mise en scène of shadow-play out of a location that would in reality be pitch black apart from the dim flickering of torch beams.
The adventurers prove themselves an improbably hardy bunch when their tour turns out to be a much more immersive experience than most casual sightseers would tolerate, and has them wading through flooded shafts into areas even the matter-of-fact Kris hasn’t been to before. Most people would be out of this place by the time they’d found a cockroach scurrying out of their coffee cup during a short tea-break, but this bunch even carry on after encountering a lumbering, brutish duo of Neo-Nazi ‘worshippers’ with a pit bull on a string. Despite this unpleasant run-in the gang carry on deeper underground, and end up having to negotiate a perilous drop via a thin steel girder. Inevitably there’s an accident and this is where the group’s troubles really begin …
“Urban Explorers” certainly provides director, editor and cinematographer Andy Fetscher with a fantastic Hollywood calling-card should he require it for that purpose, since all three of those elements – direction, editing and photography -- are superbly manifested here. The German-Romanian filmmaker efficiently builds up the suspense and mystery with stylish visuals which inevitably echo the clammy mood of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” (with its similar green-hued underground bunker environment) but avoids dwelling too much on a depiction of actual physical acts of torture, providing just enough unpleasantness to fit right in with the current crop of torture flicks, though without pandering a great deal to their grisly sensibility. The inherent threat eventually emerges for our foolhardy adventurers after Denis and Lucia elect to stay behind with their injured guide while Marie and Juna retrace their route and go off to find help. But then help unexpectedly appears to emerge from an unlikely source anyway when a shaggy-haired, tombstone-toothed Ron Perlman lookalike turns up out of the blue with copious first-aid, ropes and a stretcher conveniently prepared to transport them back to his cosy underground bunker, with its suspiciously slaughter house-friendly lino décor, whereupon he proceeds to feed them questionable-looking broth from a filthy stove while filling them in on his background story. It seems Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier) is a former East German border guard originally posted here to stop those defectors who tried to go under rather over the Berlin wall back in the Cold War years. Unfortunately for Denis and Lucia, the fella is clearly completely deranged and is, for reasons unexplained and probably unexplainable, intent on continuing to practice the methods of torture learned in his former years spent fighting for the Soviets in Afghanistan on anyone he might happen to stumble across.
Stiglmeier holds court particularly well as the crazed loon killer, and singlehandedly makes what is (let’s face it) a pretty hackneyed formula worth sticking around for as he runs through a checklist of manic stares and unsettling cackles which work to highlight some impressively troglodyte features and a formidable set of yellowing choppers. The film is faced with the unavoidable problem that not one of the ensuing string of suspense set-pieces it then goes on to put thorough their paces, with Denis and Lucia forced to battle for their lives against increasingly meagre odds, delivers anything we haven’t seen a million times already in countless flicks which deal in similar territory -- although that doesn’t mean that it’s not all implemented extremely effectively and with a great deal of morbid style and panache. If this film had been released six years ago it probably would’ve gone on to be spoken about in similarly florid terms to the once-lauded “Woolf Creek”; but as things stand it just doesn’t differentiate itself enough from the pack to stand out among its current peers in any noticeable way. The psychogeography angle isn’t really explored at all in any meaningful fashion once we get to the psycho torturer/killer meat of the picture. Meanwhile, Fetscher’s visual style is an au courant mix of contemporary jittery editing and murky, green-blue lighting arrangements to which the German director adds an effective quirk of his own devising in the form of blood-shot crimson camera filters which appear whenever the action becomes particularly fraught for the final survivors. There’s also a great scene which plays on the apparent breaching of the isolation and claustrophobia which dominates most of the picture when one of the five explorers thinks they’ve finally escaped to safety aboard one of the crowded underground trains which can be periodically heard rumbling above ground throughout most of the movie, only to find that all the other passengers merely look on passively when the tormentor appears posing as a ticket inspector (still with an obvious bleeding wound on his forehead) and proceeds to hustle his hysterical, screaming prey off at the next stop for ‘not having a ticket’.
Released by Anchor Bay in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray, with neither format having any extras whatsoever, the film does at least fetch up particularly appealingly in HD and has an excellent audio design which gives those surrounds a more than decent workout. This won’t be changing anyone’s life in any profound way, but it’s an efficiently delivered, well-crafted suspense-horror flick with a couple of squirm-inducing scenes of violence tossed in for good measure, and is therefore worth a spin as long as you’re not expecting from it anything you can’t probably already guess in advance.
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