Tuesday, October 7, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Tunnel

The Tunnel (2011)
I've had a mixed reaction to Australian Found Footage horror films. I really did not like Uninhabited, which felt poorly produced, written, and acted - despite some glorious scenery. Lake Mungo on the other hand - though perhaps not strictly a Found Footage movie - is a movie I consider an underappreciated gem.

So I approached The Tunnel with a bit of trepidation, despite having had it recommended by a few folks on this very board. I'm happy to say that it comes down closer to the Lake Mungo side of things, though it doesn't quite reach the same level.

The Medium
The Tunnel was a crowd funded production and was initially released via BitTorrent for free, though it can now be purchased on streaming platforms and on DVD. I tried watching the film via one of the YouTube releases, but the quality of these is uniformly poor. For a Found Footage film, that's a killer. Though you can download a high-res version from any number of torrent sites legally, I decided to rent it via Amazon. While the picture was not high-definition it was considerably better than the YouTube versions.

Some parts are just never going to be clear - which is okay with me.

The Movie
The Tunnel follows a news crew as they investigate why government authorities have suddenly abandoned a plan to recycle millions of gallons of water that has filled several abandoned tunnels beneath the city of Sydney. Man that's a mouthful. There's a drought, government representatives announce a plan to recycle water found in underground tunnels. After an election, that plan is abandoned with no reason given.

Natasha, a journalist, decides to investigate. She and her crew - cameraman Steven, sound guy Tangles, and producer Peter - are unable to get anyone in the government to talk, so they descend into the tunnels to try and uncover the truth.

Things go well, and they all return alive.

See? Everything's fine!

Okay, no, that's not at all what happens. Instead, they find evidence that the tunnels were recently inhabited by the homeless, but they've all disappeared. Then, while filming a sequence involving an old emergency bell, Tangles disappears. In the frantic search for him the others find a room with blood splattered on the walls and Tangles' bloody flashlight. Worse, they realize that a hand-held camera - the only one with night vision - has been moved. Reviewing the footage reveals that someone or something has been watching them.

I'm sure he's fine... probably just a paper cut.

Things go quickly downhill from there, with a horrific something stalking them through the tunnels. Obligatory dodgy camera lights and things seen only briefly in the night vision camera are the order of the day. The maps are not quite right, the batteries are not all charged and personal tensions endanger everyone. Not all of them will live to see the light of day again.

There's nothing really new going on here - we've seen a lot of this in previous Found Footage movies. However, that's nothing against the film. They make great use of what they have - in particular, with a really atmospheric underground setting. The footage from the cameras are treated with more thoughtfulness than you might expect, giving decent excuses for the variation in film quality. The stuff shot in the color camera by the professional are, for course, framed and shot better than the video from the handheld, which is held by non-technical crew and often out of focus or aimed at the ground/bodypart/wall. Using both cameras allows the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it too, in that they get some scenes that are nicely shot and others that have all of that shakey, amateur look that's bread and butter for the Found Footage genre, and it makes a consistent sort of sense.

The location is the real star of the film. The tunnels and abandoned rooms that are the background for events are great - full of creepy atmosphere. They did some fun stuff with look-alike corridors in that at a couple of points I thought - as did the characters - that they were heading down a series of hallways that we'd already seen, but instead ran into a dead end or a different room.

At some point they apparently find the room my brothers and I had circa 1986...

The monster isn't half-bad either, and used sparingly. It's almost never (if at all) shot with the color camera and we're reduced to picking out details in a blur of movement or extreme darkness.

The acting ranges from above average to mediocre, with the main female lead falling into the latter category, unfortunately. She's got a pretty flat affect and I'm not sure whether that's the character or the actress. I could have done without her being portrayed as a control freak more concerned with her career than her crew - it was already annoying when it was used in The Blair Witch Project.

The main drawbacks to the film are the interviews. The movie is set up - not unlike Lake Mungo - as a documentary using interviews with the survivors and the footage that they brought back. These don't do the movie any favors and serve mostly to tell us who is going to live, who is going to die and to kill any suspense or momentum built up in the Found Footage parts.

The Bottom Line
The Tunnel doesn't really tread any new territory, but it's an effective Found Footage film nonetheless, especially given its budget constraints. It makes great use of the medium and of its locations to create more mood than terror - though there are some good jump scares to be had.

Ring my beeee-eeelll ell, ring my... I'm sorry, I'l get my coat.

I do think the movie would be better served by removing the interview sections and simply presenting the Found Footage parts as-is. I think it would move quicker, build more consistently and wouldn't give us time to ponder the dodgier aspects of the production.

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