One of humankind’s many accomplishments over the years has seen us exploring all “corners” of the world, from deep jungles to the tallest of mountains. Our desire for more knows no bounds, so we’re still working to visit the entirety of the ocean floor and any remaining nooks and crannies we can find. Not content with the places that exist, though, means we’re also out there making new ones. Digging deep holes into the earth. Carving our way through dirt, rock, and history itself. And we’re not always going to like what we find. Films like The Descent and As Above, So Below have mined both scares and atmosphere from our claustrophobic intentions, but plenty others haven’t found the horror. The Deep Dark is the latest contender, and while a low budget keeps its ambition from tipping over into greatness, it’s still delivers chills and a solid creature feature down in the dark.
Post-war France, and industries are booming. The mining business, in particular, is moving men deeper in search of bigger energy riches, but for one group of miners that search is about to come to an end. A professor (Jean-Hugues Anglade) has convinced management to let him ride down into the depths and direct a very specific excavation. It seems he has reason to believe a treasure of both monetary and cultural importance sits just past the thousand feet mark, but trouble starts almost as soon as he and the miners reach their intended target. The head miner, Roland (Samuel Le Bihan), isn’t thrilled about any of it, but the men, including newcomer Amir (Amir El Kacem), see only the promised bonus pay at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately for them, bad luck, poor choices, and an ancient creature with bloodlust on its mind mean their end may come sooner than expected.
The Deep Dark opens with a tease of what’s to come with a prologue set a century earlier revealing other doomed miners and a glimpse of something unnatural in the dark. It sets the tone nicely and gets viewers hunching closer to the screen, and it allows writer/director Mathieu Turi the opportunity to spend more time introducing some of the characters heading into the earth in 1956. Even better, it allows time for viewers to see and appreciate the beautiful production design (via Marc Thiébault) and period details of the world these men are leaving behind. It all feels real to the eye, and that visual truth continues down into the dark, tight confines of the world below.
As mentioned at the top, other films have aimed for similarly claustrophobic terrors and ultimately succeeded better in the execution, but Turi’s film still finds an uncomfortable tightness. From the small, packed elevator descending into the earth to tunnels lit only by lantern — and only to a nearby distance leaving a pitch black maw beyond — The Deep Dark has your number before its monstrous threat even arrives. And that’s a good thing as that monster’s appearance is something of a double-edged sword.
Glimpsed only in bits and pieces and in the shadows at first, Turi’s creature is revealed soon enough in all its glory, and it is a visual triumph. The beast hints at ancient, Lovecraftian origins and is brought to life via entirely practical effects. It’s essentially a large puppet, like a deranged escapee from Sesame Street intent on crushing heads, ripping flesh, and more, and the result is a grim treat for the senses. The downside, though, and the one area where a low budget really comes into play, is in regard to its motion limitations. The range and speed of those movements leave it feeling every bit like a puppet, and that may be enough to distract some viewers. The more forgiving among us, though, will focus on appreciating the very cool strengths over the unfortunate weakness.
Turi’s script sees The Deep Dark offer up a slight commentary on imperialism, class, and more, but the main point here comes down to little more than survival. The small ensemble does good work across the board with even the stereotypical caricature characters convincing in their greed and fear. We’re also given a glimpse of something bigger on the narrative front, and while it hardly sets up a sequel it’s clear there’s something more apocalyptic to this monstrous threat than expected.
The Deep Dark can’t quite make its mark as great nor original, and others have approached similar ideas better, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of the horror. The dark, the small spaces, the hollowed out loneliness that is existing so far beneath the surface, and the creature intent on tearing you limb from limb, climbing out of corpses, and talking through your severed head all work to make for a compelling and attractive little chiller.
The Deep Dark played Toronto After Dark and other festivals this year, and it will hopefully see an official U.S. release next year.