Is there anyplace more romantic than Berlin in the Fall? Probably. But that doesn’t mean love can’t blossom in Germany’s capital city amidst friends and strangers alike. It’s just unfortunate the lovebirds decided to celebrate by sneaking into the subterranean depths beneath Berlin on a guided tour of the tunnels and rooms left over from World War II.
Unfortunate for them, but pretty convenient for the madman lurking down below.
Denis (Nick Eversman) and Lucia (Nathalie Kelley) are a young couple who decide to tack a spelunking adventure on their date, and they’re joined by two strangers, Marie (Catherine de Léan) and Juna (Brenda Koo), who soon discover a flirtation of their own. The quartet is led underground by their local guide, Kris (Max Riemelt), who has discovered a lucrative little business with these excursions. They head out and down, and after being impressed early on by the immense scope and dark history of the tunnel system decide to push their luck by exploring just a little bit further…
An accident quickly incapacitates one of the five, so the remaining explorers decide the best course of action, naturally, is to split up and send two for help while two stay behind. Which is when a tunnel maintenance man named Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier) arrives on the scene to offer assistance.
“Assistance” by the way is German for torture, dismemberment, and mastication.
Urban Explorer starts strong with the introduction of an acceptable, albeit unexceptional, group of characters who offer just enough personality to make them feel distinct and valuable. None of them annoy, grate on the nerves, or act with immense stupidity. Denis and Lucia are believable enough, even if she is far too attractive for him, and the hint of a blossoming relationship between Marie and Juna tantalizes and teases without ever feeling exploitative or silly.
The film’s biggest plus though is its atmospheric and naturally creepy setting. Director Andy Fetscher shoots the underground caverns, tunnels, and rooms effectively and manages to make them feel simultaneously enormous and claustrophobic. The characters react as we do upon first seeing the world they’re entering. Awe, wonder and curiosity quickly morph into fear and concern as the surface grows farther and farther away. The darkness and inherent fear of anything potentially Nazi-related work to create real tension.
At least until the killer’s plan is revealed in all its goofy, over-acted, over the top glory.
The real sense of unease is forgotten in favor of gory torture and comical villainy, and the film suffers for it. The plot is nothing new, but until this point it managed to be a solidly entertaining genre film. It offered nothing truly original, but it hit the horror marks with style and skill. The recent UK film The Tunnel treads some similar territory (although in the found footage format) and has the opposite problem… a weak and slow setup is followed by a superior second half.
Urban Explorer is a flawed but entertaining subterranean slasher that works at least as often as it doesn’t. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it fares better than many a formulaic horror film. Fans of genre films, claustrophobic settings, and crazy ass Germans should give it a shot.
The Upside: Characters don’t annoy; fantastic atmosphere in underground; interesting setup and use of red herrings; I’d go spelunking with Brenda Koo anytime
The Downside: Second half resorts to cheap scares and poor writing; can’t avoid feeling rote and generic