Urban Explorer (2011): Released 5th March on DVD & Bluray
(18) Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Andy Fetscher
Writer: Martin Thau
Starring: Nathalie Kelley, Nick Eversman, Klaus Stiglmeier
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
German horror Urban Explorer has been billed as a cross between The Descent and Creep, and I couldn’t agree more. Some will also probably compare it to Hostel in places, but this shock fest is much better than Eli Roth’s vision. Urban Explorer is violent, don’t get me wrong, but there is far more intelligence on offer here, and the film leaves a horrible, lingering thought in one’s head, and you will come away from this feeling like you have just been through an ordeal. Although director Andy Fetscher has clearly been influenced by the previously mentioned films, he has the brains and the balls to use those influences, very well I might add, and create his own unique vision of madness and menace. In case you hadn’t guessed, I liked this, and while I don’t believe it will suit everyone’s taste, those who do watch it and enjoy it (I use that term carefully by the way!), will be recommending this to other horror fans. This is a horror, but not one that can be pigeonholed into just one horror genre, there is a lot going on here, and thankfully all involved are splendid and help carry an already brilliant story.
Four strangers arrive in Berlin with a plan to see areas of Berlin shut off from the public, no go areas if you will. They hire a guide who will illegally take them through murky, dark, damp tunnels beneath a nightclub in order for the group to get photos and videos of otherwise unseen attractions. The idea of this is known as ‘Urban Exploring’, and it is something which does actually happen, although people may think twice after seeing this. The strangers are made up of the two main characters, boyfriend and girlfriend Denis (Nick Eversman) and Lucia (Nathalie Kelley), a French student named Marie (Catherine de Lean) and a Chinese girl called Juna (Brenda Koo). Kris (Max Riemelt) is their guide, he meets them in a car park, leads them through the nightclub, through a secret door and announces “welcome to the darkside of Berlin”. Indeed, but these sightseers don’t know it yet. Tonight they will literally go through Hell, but not before they get some pictures!
Now, my first concern, and possibly only complaint with this movie is why four strangers would do this in the first place. I understand the couple, but the French girl and Chinese girl are clearly nervous, and once everyone realises no one knows each other, a sense of panic and mistrust sets in. I suppose people out there really are that trusting, and really would do this? I wouldn’t, and especially not after watching this! There are some very clever moments and facial expressions from the guide which can be intentionally misleading. You begin to wonder if this guy can be trusted, and in a superb scene where two giant brutes, dressed like skin heads and with a signature violent dog in tow, you wonder if this is all a set up. The massive German’s tell the group to leave, and demand to see the photos already taken. They release their dog and the Chinese girl bashes it over the head with a plank of wood. Will we see these two brutes again? Was Kris in on it? And just what were these two guys doing down here in the first place?
The film moves along at a satisfying pace, it is not fast moving, but the actual exploring of the tunnels and creepy passageways is so interesting it doesn’t need to be fast moving at this point. The simple excitement of going through all the undiscovered areas with the group is actually so well presented that these early stages never become boring. The group begin to become friends, with the French girl even taking as bit of a shine to our Chinese lady as she becomes the first of the group to become spooked. Watching her back all the time, Marie is clearly nervous those two brutes will be back, suddenly we realise they might be back as well, suddenly the film takes on a sinister edge, and the dark corridors soon become very scary. With the guide leading them somewhere even he hasn’t been, because that is what they group asked for, the film very quickly feels unsafe, unsure, and frighteningly unpredictable. The entire atmosphere is helped by some truly exceptional production, with the film looking skilfully made, but keeping that raw edge that keeps it from feeling too safe, too much like a film (if you get my meaning). The camerawork is superb, with the cameraman often focusing on background items, like dripping water, graffiti, a piano, Hell even a light, all in close up add a real sense of panic. Added to this an often blurred camera close up, which gives off a real sense of claustrophobia, and we have ourselves a near perfect horror. The sound effects also impress, with background noises enhanced, every minor detail is recorded for maximum impact, like simply someone stepping on a ladder. Each and every camera trick or sound effect will put you more and more on edge. Finally the lighting also works well, with mostly whites, greys, blacks and blues being the dominant colours, it feels cold, lonely and unwelcoming. The director uses all these elements to build the atmosphere as the film continues to get darker.
The group stumble upon a very creep room full of Nazi paintings on the wall, and we are told the story of Nazi spacemen who conducted experiments, went mad, and are rumoured to be walking around down in these tunnels. The group are clearly unsettled by this story, and yet move on only to find themselves faced with an impossible situation as their guide has an accident. Marie and Juna go for help, and Lucia (a nurse) and Dennis stay behind, only help finds them. Suddenly a new character is introduced, the slightly mad Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier), with his bearded face, wide maniac eyes and freakishly large teeth, he brings some much needed comic relief, momentarily, and appears to save the day. While sitting down for a meal with him, Lucia and Dennis learn he is a former border control agent who went through “special” training, and it would appear he still believes the divide between East and West Germany exists. Armin is a truly amazing character, both in terms of the film and the performance by Stiglmeier, and without giving too much away, he will be a tough one to beat this year in horror.
As the film progresses to its shocking and violent climax, I noticed how brilliantly the camera had started to become more and more chaotic to add to the madness. A clever move, and with the camera already feeling quite intrusive on the cast with its numerous close-ups, the violent shaking and jolting around enhanced the films build up to what is truly a horrific finale. Relationships are tested, one moment actually being quite heartbreaking, and your nerves will be working overtime. See, here we get good guys in a situation with a real danger, a real threat as they become victim to some horrendous assaults. Unlike some horrors, the villain (or villains) are actually very very frightening, and you really do not know what will happen. This is not a film which lingers on a big violent moment as if to say “what do you think of that?”, Urban Explorers just carries on to the next scene, and the next as a constant attack on your nerves will leave you breathless.
This is great stuff, intelligent, violent and unpredictable, with a great cast (Nathalie Kelley showing off the finest legs of the year, sorry but had to mention it!) and an even better villain(s). Urban Explorer has learnt from its influences, chewed them up and spat them out with a genre defining horror that will stay with you for days after. This is real horror, brutal horror and often very chilling horror. Urban Explorers is not a film for the faint hearted, but those who love their horror with balls and a focus on scaring you shitless, this is it!