“We live in a vertical world. If you can’t trust the elevators, what the fuck can you trust?”
After I got aboard the Dick Maas freight train (or elevator, I guess) I decided I shouldn’t skip his English-language remake of THE LIFT. I guess Artisan released it on DVD as THE SHAFT (with a terrible cover), but Blue Underground went back to the original title of DOWN. (And included 151 minutes of behind the scenes footage!? That’s what it says. I didn’t watch it.) One of those stock photo places has a poster from some territory using the DOWN title and it’s ugly but has the excellent tagline “You May Want to Take the Stairs…”
This is part of that strange phenomenon of overseas films remade for American/western audiences by the original director – see also THE VANISHING, NIGHTWATCH, FUNNY GAMES, 13 TZAMETI – but those are usually new directors who caught the eye of Hollywood and were seduced into some shenanigans. “Yeah, it’s great, we loved it, but make it in English now.” This is different because it’s a minor cult movie from 18 full years earlier. In an interview with Rumsey Taylor Maas said that he’d had offers for an American remake since the original movie came out, but was occupied with other projects. But by the ’90s when they were still asking, “Somehow I began taking to the idea… Elevators are a crucial part of American life, so why didn’t it become a subject for one of your big blockbusters? I tried to help you by doing it myself.”
I admire the remake for not trying to temper or apologize for how wacko the premise is. After a lightning storm, the elevators in a building start doing unexplainable, dangerous things, causing many deaths. One of the elevator repairmen who takes a look at it, Mark (James Marshall, A FEW GOOD MEN) becomes obsessed with the mystery and, with the help of at-first-annoying tabloid reporter Jennifer (Naomi Watts, TANK GIRL), uncovers some crazy shit about the elevator running on experimental military “biochips” created by mad scientist Gunther Steinberg (Michael Ironside, RED SCORPION 2).
Though that’s pretty much the original story, the specifics are so different it never feels like too much of a rehash. Maas has a bigger budget, and is hoping for a bigger audience, so he tries to make everything in the movie bigger too. Instead of a quiet office building, it takes place in the fictional Millennium Building, New York City. I think the original building was around 20 stories, this is said to be 102. The original was pretty quiet and uneventful, this one is teeming with tourists (you can tell because one guy has an I ❤ NY shirt and everybody else has cowboy hats or Hawaiian shirts). And therefore the owner (Edward Herrmann, DEATH VALLEY) gets to have a mayor-from-JAWS moment: “Closing down those express elevators for a week would be a financial disaster!”
Though the release dates I’ve found are a few months before 9-11, IMDb trivia says the attacks prevented a wider release. I wondered about that, because there’s even a reference to bin Laden and terrorism (though when Jennifer wants to distract cops with a fictional threat, she says “Look out! Libyans!”). This is a relic from a very specific window of time when movies looked like this but could be about a disaster in a tall building in New York City.
Repairman Mark is also established as an ex-Marine. The climax has a whole SWAT team involved, and he steals a shoulder launcher and Stinger missile from them, plus has a fist fight and roll on the ground with Michael Ironside. And the elevator controls turn into a giant brain-type organ, not just a little slime. Size does matter!
This might’ve been the last moment when Watts would be willing to do a movie like this. It came out the same month MULHOLLAND DRIVE played Cannes, so it was right on the edge of her becoming a huge movie star. Luckily it didn’t scare her away from English-language horror remakes, because she did THE RING the next year. And it’s not her usual type of character – she’s supposed to be humorously brash and opportunistic, though we know deep down she’s good because when she’s assigned the elevator deaths story she protests, “But I’m working on that piece on the struggle for women’s voting rights!”
Her crude talk gives Mark openings to awkwardly “flirt” with her by “joking” about fucking. His technique proves successful, but overall he’s a little more wholesome than the first guy. Instead of having a wife who knows him well enough to assume he’s cheating when he keeps hanging out with this reporter, he comes to his girlfriend’s apartment at the beginning, trying to apologize for a fight they had, sees that she has had a man there overnight, and apologizes and leaves. It’s surprisingly appropriate behavior for a movie like this, though I suppose it might be meant to show him as meek.
Maas returns as writer as well as director, but not composer. The score by Paul M. van Brugge (THE LAKE HOUSE [uncredited]) is fine, but not as cool as the original – nothing exciting. Otherwise, there’s very little that feels normal about this movie. I was not surprised to learn that it was mostly filmed in the Netherlands – that explains the odd RUMBLE IN THE BRONXness of its New Yorkers. Everyone seems at least a little too broad and false, and nothing looks lived in or on location. Mark lives in a small apartment but collects jukeboxes and, in one scene, plays a Chuck Berry song while dancing around holding (but not playing) a guitar. This all fits with Maas’ trademark character quirks, except the place just looks so clean and artificial, with its ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN and retro clip art “BEER” posters, that it seems like it had to have been a prop room or something left over from some TV show or something and they said, “I don’t know, make this jukebox room his home, I guess?”
Much of the dialogue, the supporting performances and the digital effects are similarly cheesy, making it impossible to say this cuts it as an American horror film. I really like its weird vibe and absurd premise, but of course it wasn’t going to go over well with normal people, as I assume the producers hoped it would. There was just no way it could’ve. It’s more ambitious than the original, but it overreaches, tries for things it can’t execute on a high level, giving it an overall cheaper feeling. There are more elaborate things that happen to people in that elevator – like a great set piece where the floor falls out and a bunch of tourists (including children) are dangling, falling, bouncing. But it’s done with more green screen and mid-level digital FX, less stunts, so it’s a little less hard hitting, a little more SyFy. And though it’s kind of cool that the famous beheading is redone as a continuous shot, to me the digital version just isn’t as effective as the dummy head. I’m a traditionalist in this case.
But I can forgive most of that because it’s a fun movie, and with fewer dull stretches than the original. Part of that may be my American bias – the scenes with people talking in offices aren’t quite as boring because you say “hey, they got Dan Hedaya for this part!” There’s a press conference where you see Michael Ironside, Ron Perlman, Edward Herrmann and Dan Hedaya all sitting together, like it’s a character actor convention.
Maas does restage some of the famous kills, but adds all kinds of new business, with his usual eccentric touch. He still has a blind man who walks into an open shaft, still makes him an asshole for some reason, but adds a prologue where his hairdresser dyes his hair green because “the dirty prick deserves it.” And there’s a beautiful touch that at first he’s dangling from his guide dog’s leash, before dragging him down too. (Later, at a press conference, a reporter from an animal themed magazine asks about the dog.)
In one enjoyably ridiculous scene some hooligans have a rollerblade race through traffic and into the parking garage. One gets hit by a car and the other gets sucked into the elevator and shot out the top floor. This building hates rollerbladers.
Maybe the most inspired bit of weirdo shit is that Maas changed the scene about people trapped on a dangerously hot elevator from two tipsy couples leaving a restaurant to half a dozen pregnant women leaving a pregnancy class together. All those giant bellies make it more horrifying that this is happening to them. One of them gives birth in the elevator, of course. Maybe more than one – I was unclear on that point. But I damn sure hope one of those babies will grow up to be the hero of a sequel or rebootquel.
If you’re wondering – and I promise you this is not a joke – Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” plays both in the movie and on the end credits.
To most people I would recommend THE LIFT over DOWN, because it’s just a more solid piece of filmmaking, with a stronger control of its tone and style. But the remake is its own thing, it has a different appeal to it – that unhinged quality of sloppy but thrilling international co-productions. It has more mayhem and strangeness packed in there if the original is too slow for you. I’m glad I gave it a shot.