HorrorFest 2009: 'Under The Mountain'
Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
I've got some catching up to do this weekend, so let's see how many of these we can do today and tomorrow.
I think it's important that there be horror films aimed at younger audiences. Or maybe I should say more general audiences. Not everyone's going to hang with a "Martyrs" or an "Inside." And that's fine. They shouldn't have to. Horror films can be like chili peppers, ranging from mild to insane, and I like the full range and crave it all at different times. When I was very young, I watched a lot of "Creature Features" on Saturday afternoons in St. Petersburg. Dr. Paul Bearer would introduce a double-feature each week, and typically you'd get one in black and white and one in color. And they were always films that could play uncut on television. They weren't showing bowdlerized R-rated movies. They showed Hammer films and Corman movies and '50s alien invasion films and classic Universal monsters. Those movies, which seem safe to some extent when judged by today's standards, were my gateway drug to the full psychotropic spectrum of horror films that I now regularly imbibe.
Which brings us to Jonathan King's new film, "Under The Mountain." His first movie, "Black Sheep," was a splatterrific New Zealand horror/comedy cut from the same mold as early Peter Jackson movies. I wasn't 100% in love with the movie, but I thought it was ripe with great bits, and it felt like an introduction to a really sharp new filmmaker. I like that he zagged instead of zigged with his follow-up picture, which plays much more subdued than his first film, and which could easily be seen as a modern version of those gateway drug horror films, those milder, more subtle scares. It's a film that feels like an '80s kids movie in some ways, and taken as such, it's a pretty solid and entertaining ride.
I've never read the book that the film is based on or seen the '80s TV version of it, which Nickelodeon evidently repackaged over here. I came to this fresh, and I agree with Devin Faraci's shorthand description of it: "C'thulu for kids." That's exactly how it feels. It's also fitting that the Drafthouse showed a vintage trailer for the original '70s Disney version of "Escape To Witch Mountain" before the film, because it's another apt comparison. Theo (Tom Cameron) and Rachel (Sophie McBride) are teenage twins who are sent to spend some time with relatives in Auckland, where they find themselves drawn into an ancient battle between good and evil. I know... kids and magic and prophecies has all been done about a bazillion times at this point, but it works here because of the specific mythology that the story sets out, involving the volcanoes around Auckland. Turns out each of them has a giant Leviathan sleeping underneath it, and an evil family has been slowly working to awake the Leviathans, something only Theo and Rachel can stop. They have only one ally to help them, the mysterious Mr. Jones, played by Sam Neill. He reveals to them that he is part of an ancient race of aliens who traveled to Earth with his own twin, only to lose him before they could fulfill their destiny. Only twins can stop the Leviathans from being awoken, and Theo and Rachel have a strong bond, including a telepathic link, that could make all the difference. The trouble is that Theo is so angry in the wake of their mother's death and their father's abandonment of them that he has closed Rachel out completely, and no matter what, he won't re-establish that link which is the one thing that can save them from the plans of the mysterious Wilberforce family.
With special creature effects by WETA Workshop, the film looks great, and it makes the most of its relatively mild rating, amping up the creepy and toning down the explicit to good effect. It's a strong indicator that Jonathan King has a big career ahead of him outside of the horror genre, and a huge career inside the genre if he wants it. He's able to stretch here and proves himself capable of more than one note, which is more than I can say for a lot of contemporary horror filmmakers. Walt Disney's got the rights to this one in New Zealand, but there's no American distributor yet. I hope that changes, because I have a feeling that with a little careful handling, "Under The Mountain" could be a sizeable family hit for the right company, and I'd love for it to help create a new generation of nascent horror nerds.
The film was reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2009 in Austin, TX.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009.
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