Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Lift (1983): or, Elevator Action

In a high-class hotel somewhere in the Netherlands, an elevator goes crazy and starts killing people.

Not every technological system in the hotel, mind you: just the elevator.

I'm sure you can immediately intuit the narrative hole writer/director Dick Maas has dug for himself right from the get-go. Unlike the villainous machinery in other flicks in the "technology gone MAD" subgenre (e.g, the Killbots in Chopping Mall, the demonic dozer in Killdozer, the hi-tech house in This House Possessed), the titular Technological Terror in 1983's The Lift, by definition, has neither the mobility nor the ubiquity that would make it a truly menacing threat. After all, the movie's own advertising tagline--"Take the stairs, take the stairs, for God's sake, take the stairs!!"--gives viewers a pretty much fool-proof plan for staying out of its killer's cold, metallic clutches.

This is not quite as damning a flaw as it might at first appear, however. As a result of these limitations, Haas must be a bit more creative in terms of plot. Rather than making a movie about killer tech chasing down humans and ripping them to quivering, meaty pieces, Maas instead has to make a movie about how many devious but believable ways he can maneuver his victims into the jaws of the beast. Add some actual character development, a dash of Mad Science, and some pleasingly creative kills, and you've got a movie that is, if not terribly frightening, still more fun than it probably should have been.

Three Doors to Terror

We open in aforementioned hotel, where a group of middle-aged party people who look like secondary characters in the Dutch version of "The Office" are closing down the bar. Staggering drunkenly from their table, trailing inappropriate sexual innuendo and empty Heineken bottles, the freewheeling foursome fall into the hotel elevator on their way to the ground floor. While they languish in transit, a freak lightning bolt hits the elevator control works on the hotel's top floor, killing all power and stranding them between floors.

The two couples have markedly different reactions to their sudden predicament. One pair, the older of the two, sits down on the floor and starts complaining about how hot it is without the air conditioning. The other, younger couple take the opportunity to lean up against a wall and start having sex! Because this is a Dutch movie, the older couple see nothing strange or shocking about this turn of events, even when the younger woman strips down to her waist and throws her legs around her portly partner. I can only assume this is a normal way to pass the time on public transportation in the Netherlands.

Love in an Elevator

Soon enough the power is restored to the hotel, but strangely NOT to the elevators. The temperature rises more and more in the stalled lift, and soon the older couple is choking on more than sex stank, as the air conditioning system spontaneously sucks all the oxygen out of the (presumably airtight) car! The four trapped humans gasp and collapse, but are freed by the hotel staff just before actual suffocation. They are rushed to the hospital, followed by four salivating lawyers in track shoes.

Enter Elevator Repair Technician Felix Adelaar, a blue-collar schmoe working for DETA LIFTEN, Holland's premier purveyors of vertical intra-building transportation equipment. We meet Felix at his apartment after a long day at work that presumably had its ups and downs (badump), where his two enegetic, cherub-faced children are driving their extremely cute mother Saskia insane with their noisy toys and relentless questions. Saskia could obviously use a bit more help around the house, and finds Felix's long hours a strain. In a few short scenes Maas paints a believable picture of a marriage from which the romance has long since gone, replaced by day-to-day stress and drudgery. But those Florins aren't going to earn themselves, so the next day it's back to work for Felix.

The day little Timmy started Clown School was the proudest of Felix's life

Of course Felix gets assigned to the problem lift at the hotel, since the regular repairman, Beheerder, inexplicably went MAD shortly after that particular elevator's last scheduled checkup. Felix finds nothing wrong with the mechanics of the lift, but can't be sure about the microcircuitry, which is subcontracted out to computer-chip firm Rising Sun. He promises to give it a more thorough seeing-to after talking with his superiors about the chips.

In the interim, the Lift takes its misanthropic behavior up a notch. First it opens on an empty shaft for a Blind Man, leading to a slapstick plunge. Next it plays hide and seek with the night watchman, tricking him into thinking an intruder is riding the lifts up and down for kicks. After a short, tiring chase, it opens again on an empty shaft, but this time the sighted watchman doesn't fall for it. (Badum-bump.) But when he sees the blind man's corpse at the bottom of the shaft, he sticks his head through the opening to investigate--only to be trapped there by the lift doors, and then guilloutined by the slowly-descending car!


Felix comes back again the next day to find the place in an uproar due to the untimely deaths, and there he meets busty tabloid journalist Mieke de Beer (don't mind if I do!), who is sure there's a story to be exploited in all this tragedy. While older and a bit more "lived-in" looking than Felix's wife, Mieke *does* know how to work the sassy banter (not to mention the tortoiseshell cigarette holder), and comes on very strong while she pumps him for information. ("What your coworker stumbled upon drove him mad?" "That lift does things it shouldn't!" "*I* do things I shouldn't!") Since Felix is only a man--and a Dutch man at that--he responds to her advances rather warmly.

The next day Mieke and Felix start investigating the problem lift's history a little deeper, even going to the sanitarium to visit the previous lift repairman, getting only a blank stare in return. However, outside the madhouse Felix notices as Rising Sun van speeding away, and naturally becomes suspicious. Meanwhile some of Saskia's friends have seen Felix and Mieke together, and immediately inform her of her husband's straying ways. After the screaming is done, Felix finds himself with a lot more time to devote to Elevator Intrigue.

Work It, Baby

Felix discovers that Rising Sun is not your average Lift Chip company, but rather an experimental outfit particularly interested in creating "bio-chips"--biologically-engineered computer components with the circuitry shrunk down to the DNA level (presumably). Since the Mad Doc in Charge also owns the hotel, they're testing the chips in the elevator control circuitry. Because of the extra energy provided by the lightning strike (again I'm assuming--a lot of this is extrapolation), the circuitry in the lift has achieved sentience, and presumably made the short jump from there to HOMICIDAL INSANITY. Makes sense to me!

For a movie about killer tech, the body count here is quite low. In addition to the previously mentioned victims, the Lift eats a janitor, menaces a little girl (in what is actually a fairly suspenseful short scene), and strangles another character with a broken cable--in which I guess the bio-chip grew muscles...? However, Maas actually manages to make fighting an insane elevator somewhat exciting, particularly when Felix has his Final Confrontation. This scene is a doozy, as Felix has to climb the elevator shaft, avoid being crushed to death by ducking into alcoves, investigate computer bio-goo, and finally destroy the bio-chips themselves, first using a screwdriver and then throwing an ACTUAL MONKEY WRENCH into the works! I have a soft spot for cliches made literal, so sue.

It wasn't the first time Felix found strange goo in his shaft

There isn't much in the way of gore, but what is there is pretty memorable--particularly the decapitation in the shaft. Felix's character and his relationship with his wife are drawn really well, making his attraction to Mieke all the more believable. (In another sign you're watching a Dutch movie rather than an Italian or American one, their adulterous attraction is never acted upon, though whether this means Felix goes back to his wife is unclear.) There is a bit of nudity, in the lift at the beginning and later when the hotel manager is schtupping hsi boss's wife in his office, allowing the Lift to menace her daughter in the meantime.

The flick does get talky in spots--there's a lot of back and forth in the DETA LIFT offices, which offered an intriguing implication of a vast subculture of elevator repairmen in the Netherlands, but never expanded on it. And it probably could have used a little more Lift-based mayhem, maybe another kill or two--though it could be that Maas ran out of ideas for how the Lift could trap and kill new victims, which would of course be understandable.

Still, with the wild mad-science explanation, the creative kills, and an undercurrent of dry Euro-humor that brought a smirk every now and then, I found The Lift an enjoyable way to spend hour and a half. 2 Thumbs. Give it a chance and see if it gets a rise out of you too.

"It's heeeeeere..."


Unknown said...

Fun fact: director Dick Maas remade this film in 2001 as Down (video title: The Shaft). The new version featured an English-speaking cast, including Naomi Watts, Michael Ironside, Ron Perlman, and Edward Herrmann.

I haven't seen either version, alas(?).

The Duke of DVD said...

Man, how knew the Dutch were so openly horny?

So basically, the Dutch equivalent of Cyberdyne, instead of choosing to, say, make a race of sentient robots hell-bent on eradicating humanity, chose to end humanity one elevator ride at a time? Genius!

LOL @ "goo in his shaft" caption, bravo, sir!

Franco Macabro said...

One of the funniest reviews Ive read in a while, such wit! I saw this one ages ago on t.v., I was glued to the whole film for the whole time, though I too found the premise kind of stupid.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Nate Y.--I had no idea about the remake! I'd kind of like to see how Maas updated his original vision. Maybe I'll check it out!

@The Duke--Obviously supervillains from the Netherlands are much more clever and patient than their American counterparts. Today the lifts, tomorrow the escalators! Humanity is doomed! Very...slowly...doomed...!

@The Film Connoiseur--thanks for the kind words! I think THE LIFT does the best it can with what it has, and I too was entertained. I can see how someone who already has a fear of elevators would be totally terrified!

J. Astro said...

I've seen the updated/Americanized THE SHAFT and it's a serviceable B-movie with fun backup performances by Ron Perlman and Dan Hedaya. I'd totally check out the original, based on what I've read here.

And as for the whole "why don't people just take the stairs" thing, it's kinda like "why don't people just NOT go swimming?" idea in JAWS: Because there's always some rich fucker who refuses to close the beach/elevators for fear of lost revenue!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@J. Astro--

>>it's kinda like "why don't people just NOT go swimming?" idea in JAWS

There's actually a slight JAWS-esue vibe to some of the scenes here (right down to a rip-off of the shark's theme on the score at one point). Of course in Spielberg's movie they got around the "why not stay out of the water" by making the main character the Sheriff who HAD to be around making sure everyone was safe. Here, pretty much the same thing--the Elevator Repairman is the Sheriff of the Lift!

Ari S. said...

LOL this looks funny

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie when I was kid living in Argentina. I thought it was awesome then. When I talk to my dad about it now, he just laughs. He remembers going to see it but said it wasn't very good.

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