Down (2019)

OCTOBER 23, 2020

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: STREAMING (HULU)

I usually stay on top of reading my Fangoria issues when they arrive (though they take me a week or two as I've never been able to just sit down with a magazine - I have to read it in chunks in between doing other things), but somehow I missed issue #2 of the relaunch, which means it is now almost two years old. But it's proof that such things do not have to be disposable, because a brief piece on Down reminded me that A. there were a lot of "Into the Dark" movies for me to watch still and B. this one in particular sounded up my alley, a survival thriller kind of thing with two people stuck in an elevator.

Plus it was directed by Daniel Stamm, who directed the first Last Exorcism (the good one) and thus was someone who could be trusted to deliver a solid genre film despite a visual handicap. In that film it was the found footage gimmick, but here he was even more restrained, as it took place almost entirely within an elevator. The film Devil (which was incidentally in theaters only a few weeks after Last Exorcism) also had an elevator plot, but it split its time between the people trapped and the people trying to get them out/figure out why it stopped in the first place - there are no such heroes here until the final 15 minutes, and the two protagonists get IN the elevator only a few minutes into the runtime, leaving Stamm with a solid hour where the camera only occasionally leaves the 10x5 space for brief cutaways to show the empty lobby or security office.

Unsurprisingly, it's that hour where the film shines brightest. Our two leads, Jen (Natalie Martinez) and Guy (Matt Lauria), are strangers when they start their long descent from their high rise (Trump Tower in fact*) down to the below ground parking garage levels (where they have no cell service, naturally), but when the elevator stops they get to know each other pretty quick. At first they make small talk (Guy with some painful jokes about the situation), then they try to figure out a way out, and when their meager efforts prove fruitless, sit down, crack the wine Guy happened to have (a gift from a client), and begin openly flirting. If you consider it a spoiler to say they eventually start having sex, I have to question why you're choosing Down to be the first movie you ever watched.

But then (and this is a legit spoiler I guess so you might want to back out) almost immediately after they finish their lovemaking Jen says something about how they will go back to their normal lives once they get out (i.e. she plans to reunite with her on/off boyfriend), prompting Guy to snap. At first it just seems like aggro nonsense coming from an emotionally fragile man, but then - sigh - he reveals that their "meeting" and subsequent situation was no accident, he planned it to get to know her after building up an obsession with her thanks to his job as a security guard (not an "upper floor" guy, as he claimed) where he became increasingly frustrated that he was invisible to her.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because yeah, the movie just suddenly turns into P2 out of nowhere. Even if it wasn't particularly "horror", I was kind of into the movie running through a normal relationship (they meet, they get to know each other, they bond, they bang, they fight, they break up) within the confines of an elevator, with the tension coming from just being stuck there. Even when he started freaking out that she didn't intend it to be any more than a fling, I was still engaged by the quirky premise. But as soon as we start getting flashbacks about how he made the elevator stop and is a stalker, I just totally checked out. I've seen that movie already, and it was more exciting and had better use of its holiday setting (all the Into the Darks have some flimsy tie to a holiday; this one was Valentine's Day).

Plus then it just becomes the umpteenth "psycho tries to kill a woman he's obsessed with" movie, instead of allowing both characters to be flawed. Jen does come off as kind of insensitive by not even waiting for Guy to put his clothes back on before announcing she's still hoping to reunite with her (seemingly jerky) ex, despite the two of them building up (if racing through) a connection, but with the reveal this just paints everything in dull black and white. Worse, somewhere around here is when the film's already hokey plot becomes less believable, as we learn they've been in there for 36 hours. The whole reason people don't often do realtime movies is because it paints them into a corner with regards to locations and visual interest, two things that weren't an issue here anyway (Stamm does indeed give the film some visual flair, and the lighting in the elevator changes at a certain point for good measure), so why they stretched the plot out to a day and a half is totally beyond me. Not only does it introduce more questions about how they're functioning (they have a tiny bottle of water and the wine, both of which they seemingly polish off in the first few hours - and then they orgasm!) but also: how long was his security guard shift supposed to last that no one comes by until the very end? He says something about taking someone's shift, but unless these people work 12 hour solo shifts with no break, it doesn't work.

Anyway, the movie just gives up on itself from there on - they leave the elevator, and then the building entirely, losing everything that made it interesting in the process. Lauria's psycho is pretty one note (he's bizarrely given a sob back story after he's already been slapping her around, as if they were trying to momentarily reclaim the equal footing - she even seems sympathetic for a few moments as he tells it!) and Martinez' Jen isn't exactly ready to join Ginny Field and Ellen Ripley in the horror icon hall of fame. The "stuck in an elevator" hook was making up for those generic characterizations, so once they don't even have that anymore I don't know how anyone could be expected to care much about the proceedings. There's a solid death when a would be rescuer is caught between floors, but it's the same sort of thing - I can see (and have seen) that in other movies - I'm here for the confined thriller aesthetics! And they were pulling it off for a while!

Ultimately it's like they lost faith in their own premise or something. Even the boring stalker stuff could have been a misstep instead of a fatal flaw if they stuck the landing, but once they leave the building I just threw my hands up. You're gonna have a "psycho trapped in an elevator" movie and NOT have the hero push him into the empty shaft and let him get crushed by it? That'd be like if Die Hard ended with John shooting Hans in the valley somewhere. Stick to your premise, movie!

What say you?

*There's no overt mention of Trump in the film, but I like how this setting actually helps explain a plot hole. As a felon, Guy wouldn't be hired by anyone to be a security guard... but given that he's also a sex pest, it kind of tracks that Trump folk would pull some strings and enable him.

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