“I don’t much like the lift, I prefer to take the stairs, it’s much safer.”
July 3, 1985
THE LIFT (DE LIFT) is a 1983 Dutch horror film, the feature debut of music video, TV and short film director Dick Maas, who would later direct AMSTERDAMNED. According to The New York Times it played the Waverly starting July 3rd, but I don’t know if it played other cities on that day, or later, or what. It was not in the top 25 at the box office for that weekend, which means it made less than the $2,723 that MOVERS & SHAKERS starring Walter Matthau made on the one screen it had left in its tenth week. So, as with WARRIORS OF THE WIND and THE STUFF earlier in this series, I’m unsure about the exact time and size of the release, but there’s enough evidence to be convinced it was played on some screens in the Summer of 1985.
So this was a season when adventurous filmgoers in certain American cities might’ve been able to see horror movies about killer yogurt and a killer elevator. THE STUFF treated its concept with a straight face, but there were jokes, and some very clear satire. I will trust the various reviews of the time that THE LIFT is a black comedy, but to me it plays serious.
Perhaps because the version on Shudder is dubbed into English from the original Dutch, it reminds me of some of the Italian horror movies I’ve seen. There are some main characters, some characters who show up briefly just to die, many of them are assholes, there’s some investigating (including long talky scenes with a fancy expert dude in his office) of a mystery that leads to something not natural. I won’t say supernatural, because the vague explanation is more Cronenbergian (which I prefer). There are some nice, moody camera moves and a pretty good synth score (by Maas!) to build lots of tension about what’s gonna happen to various people when they get too close to the film’s villain: the middle of three elevators in a particular office building.
In the opening, two blissfully drunk couples are leaving Restaurant Icarus on the 15th floor when a storm knocks out the power and traps them in the elevator. They joke about ordering champagne and caviar through the emergency phone, and one pair starts going at it up against the side of the elevator, but they soon start overheating and almost suffocate as the staff of the building fail to open the doors.
So the next day the building management call our hero, intrepid elevator repairman and apparent ladies man Felix (Huub Stapel, who also plays the titular-evil-Saint-Nick in Maas’s 2010 movie SINT [SAINT]). When we first meet him he has a black eye said to come from smiling at his friend’s wife. He’s married with two kids. His son kind of looks like a really young Corey Feldman and tries to be outrageous, but he’s less sophisticated than a Goonie or, say, Turtle from D.A.R.Y.L. He tries to tell his sister about breasts but he only knows to call them “lumps” and “chest things.”
The elevator seems to be working fine now, and Felix can’t find anything wrong with it, but then people start to die in it. Compared to some slasher movies it’s a small body count, but I like that each kill uses a different approach. The best death by far is when (SPOILER FOR THE BEST DEATH BY FAR) two security guards go to check on the thing acting up and the doors close on one guy’s head. He can see the elevator stopped above him, so there’s some suspense as he tries to get out of there, then thinks it’s coming toward him, then it stops, then it goes again and pushes his head down and we indeed get a graphic shot of a dummy head breaking off and tumbling down the shaft. I mean, if you’re watching a movie about a killer elevator, it’s either gonna have that shot or it’s not, and it would be a failure if it didn’t, but it does, so we’re in business here, in my opinion.
Obviously something is up, but Felix can’t figure out anything mechanical, so he starts asking around, hearing stories about finding hundreds of dead rats in there, or about the previous repairman who went crazy. And then he goes and tries to track that guy down, and talk to people who know him. It’s kind of like how Fletch has different mysteries he’s looking into, except instead of a journalist this is an elevator repairman. Whatever vocation you’re in, you might have to start your own investigation if the right circumstances come up. He pools some of his information with Mieke (Willeke van Ammelrooy, ANTONIA’S LINE, THE LAKE HOUSE), a journalist who questions him about it.
One of the people he talks to is an expert in the “computer chips” that run the elevator system. If you need a deadly drinking game, drink every time you hear the word “chip.” It’s mostly in one scene, but you will be absolutely hammered.
Most characters in the movie are horny. Before the two security guards run into trouble, the older one brags about his days in the Navy having “a girl in every port” and tries to get the younger one to talk about his escapades. One of Felix’s co-workers brags about having a date with “the blonde” they work with and says, “They say she shaves herself down below.” When Felix says “This lift does things it shouldn’t,” Mieke responds, “I’ve done things I shouldn’t.” In this environment it’s no wonder Felix’s wife assumes him going out at night means he’s cheating on her, and she leaves with the kids. (He doesn’t put up much of a fight, though.)
The reviews don’t seem to have been as dismissive as I’d assume, even if they were negative. Janet Maslin in The New York Times called it “remarkably tension-free” and said “Mr. Maas leaves the elevator’s potential fiendishness largely unexploited.” But Variety was very positive when they reviewed it at the end of ’82 (maybe it played Cannes or something?). They called it “Maas’ first theatrical test, which he passes handsomely” and said it “has echoes of Brian De Palma, but at bottom it’s not imitation but an original Maas.”
I don’t know about the De Palma comparison, but the filmatism is pretty strong, and works well with the oddness of the concept. I think many people would just want to laugh at it because of what it’s about, and (especially in this dubbed version) it probly has too many elements of disposable horror to overcome that. But I see it as kind of a Stephen King premise. If King is allowed to make inanimate objects into monsters 24-7 I don’t see why Dick Maas can’t get an occasional day pass. And there’s something cool about a guy climbing around in an elevator shaft (mostly filmed in a real one, I think) opening up the boxes and finding green slime and weird pulsating transparent sacs and stuff. Ah, there’s your problem, right there. The green slime and the weird pulsating transparent sac.
But I’m a guy who went from thinking THE MANGLER was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen to deciding it’s some kind of minor masterpiece, so I’m just at that place in my journey, I suppose. Your mileage may vary.
SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES:
Surprisingly this is the only movie of the season so far to use the popular “beware of technology” theme. It would be a stretch to count the electro-shock in RETURN TO OZ or Rambo’s wariness of the latest gun models. Chuck Norris made up with the police robot, D.A.R.Y.L. would have no protagonist without technology, and the invention of time travel helped Marty get a new truck or whatever. I suppose Christopher Walken was doing something evil with whatever it was he had in A VIEW TO A KILL – something about microprocessors and horse steroids? I don’t even remember anymore. But this is the first one to say hey guys, maybe cool it with the advanced elevators. Could be trouble.
In Felix’s household I believe I spotted a Babar mug, a comic book called Jerry Lee, and a pretty cool centerfold of Goofy and Clarabelle Cow.
Maas directed many music videos for a band called Golden Earring. In the video for “When the Lady Smiles,” a character runs into an elevator just as Felix comes out of the next one over with his tool kit. (3:25) It’s like how The Limey had that cameo in FULL FRONTAL.
In 2001, Maas shot an American remake called DOWN (also known as THE SHAFT), set in New York, with Naomi Watts playing the reporter. Michael Ironside, Edward Herrmann, Dan Hedaya and Ron Perlman were also in the cast.
Cinematographer Marc Felperlaan went on to shoot DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO.