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In Association with
Urban Explorers (2010)
Director: Andy Fetscher

review by Paul Higson

Teen peril horror films once had their youthful casts coming a cropper in high school settings, during that prom, or that Christmas break clean-out while most of the kids were away or, if not there then, at summer camp while acting as counsellors looking after younger wards or preparing for their arrival. There could be a frat or sorority house massacre or they might be spoilt Canadian post-graduates on a train. If that university option was not open to them then they replaced their pops in the work place; a mine, for example. It was the school, university or the workplace, at some point in the educational and growing-up process.

In the modern teen dispatcher movie trends and activities have increasingly provided the backdrop, replacing educational facilities and the workplace. Paintball (or similar) shoot-em-ups in the woods have recently featured in Daniel Benmayor's Paintball (2009), and Cosimo Alemi's War Games (2011) - although they began in the mid-1980s with Nico Masterakis' The Zero Boys (1986), and Glenn R. Wilder's Masterblaster (1987), also later featuring in Caleb Lindsay's Hard Edge (1995). Snowboarders and other skiing adventurers have provided the body count in Greg Huson's Shredder (2003), and Roar Uthaug's Cold Prey (2006). We have also seen gap year and holiday adventurers travel to remote spots to come up against a variety of dangers in Jonathan Hensleigh's Welcome To The Jungle (2007), John Stockwell's Paradise Lost (2006), and Carter Smith's The Ruins (2008).

Back in 1982, cave explorers had to fend themselves against a monster stop-motion animation vagina in Melanie Anne Phillips' The Strangeness (1985), or a bloodthirsty alien in Ciro Ippolito's Alien Terror (1980), but they were a mixed bag unlike the young women who pot-holed in Neil Marshall's The Descent (2005)... and a similarly rag-bag team that put us on the edge of seats in Alister Grierson's Sanctum (2011). Heading upwards, mountain climbers became an endangered species in Abel Ferry's High Lane (2009), and Julian Gilbey's A Lonely Place To Die (2011).

Kids in past horrors explored old houses, like in Tom DeSimone's Hell Night (1981), and Kevin Tenney's Night Of The Demons (1988), but now that falls, in part, to the urban explorers, which also happens to be the title of Andy Fetscher's feature debut. Urban Explorers takes a small group underneath Berlin where there are 25,000 tunnels reverberating with decades of Nazi and Stasi unpleasantness. Four young adventurers gather for a guided tour that will take them to a room glorying in heavily symbolic Third Reich murals and other Nazi paraphernalia. The room had been recently discovered and then bricked up again to put-off visiting idolaters from the neo-Nazi movement.

The urban explorers use nom de exhumes with one another but we the viewer have their names shared with us. Haiku (Brenda Koo), and Olympia (Catherin de Lean), have already met before the night, that is clear, and there is an inkling of a romance between Lucia (Nathalie Kelley), and Denis (Nick Eversman) - who introduce themselves as Mickey and Mallory, which suggests that they are already an established couple. Japan, France, Venezuela, and America are represented in this international outfit. Their tour guide is local resident Dante (Max Riemelt), or Kris to his mum, who runs his tour once a month, taking 200 from each client, which they only have to pay at the end of the tour and if completely satisfied.

Eight minutes in and the opening titles begin on this underground network of dripping wires and imposing corridors and spaces. There is no hurry here as the camera picks up on some of the eccentricities of the world beneath, of a floor space taken up entirely of carefully righted empty bottles that resemble an art exhibit and a shooting gallery that gives measure to an ominous recent history.

They discover that they are not alone when a pair of neo-Nazis with a pit-bull demand Olympia's camera because they believe she accidentally took a picture of them. She deletes the image but the dog is loose, kicked out of her path by Haiku. Cool customer, Dante, though having been roughed up by the extremists in the process encourages them on assuring them that their attackers will not follow. Dante has been popping in and out of the underground since he was eight and has a sixth sense about the behaviour of others below ground. Wading through underground 'canals' populated by eels, they make a pit-stop in an underground classroom where Dante brews up. "Go ahead! Sit down! The coffee's included." He then proceeds to tell them stories of the Hodi and of the dark powers that the Nazis tried to embrace. He talks of human experiments which would help the Aryan race to conquer other worlds and planets.

The film is on a slow-burn but the meticulous pacing, gradual introduction to the characters and the cautious, atmospheric camerawork keep us as close as we need to be for now. They find the Nazi den and on their return their guide suffers a nasty fall down a shaft. Lucia's medical skills are called into play but are not enough, and two must stay and two must go for help. Denis and Lucia stay with Kris. But assistance comes from another direction as they are found by Armin, a hulking grizzled combination of a grinning Lee Marvin and Nick Nolte (played by the genuinely disconcerting Klaus Stiglmeier).

He purports to have an underground station nearby that goes back to the days of the Berlin Wall. He shocks them with stories of shooting people trying to jump from east to west and even nastier earlier escapades in Afghanistan, witnessing atrocities on both sides and participating in his own. Ominously for Denis, Armin scowls as recalls how everything changed once America began providing the Mujahedeen with arms and training. It soon becomes apparent that Armin was never any knight in grubby armour, but a psychopath and torturer and he has subsisted on a diet of underground explorers for years.

A struggle for survival ensues and it's personal, with the story focusing on the encounter between Armin and a young couple both physically and literally out of their depth. Though there will be reveals, the film is in no rush and toys with expectations. It is only as the film approaches the end that it escalates the bucking of trends. Urban Explorers is not about the gruelling details of horror but about cloying tension and thrills. It does eventually concede to the whim of the torture set in one single scene of nastiness that really was not necessary. The producers clearly felt that the more bloodthirsty had to be sated. Recent horrors have realised that they need to toy with the format, and that the old standard of a band of youth getting chopped one by one every ten minutes is no longer enough. The joker dies here, the slut there; that only leads to a plodding march of the obvious.

Recently, Matt Zettell's Resurrection County (2008) appeared to be devised to completely run opposite to the unofficial but recognised guidelines for the stalker film with the girl most likely to stay the course, the first to go, and even the murderous locals not dying at the expected moment in the telling. Characters were allowed to come close to escape releasing their manacles just in time to be found out and slain. Hope is repeatedly crushed in Resurrection County. The Feast trilogy (directed by John Gulager) even playfully tells us what the life expectancy of each of the characters is just to confirm this for us and then do its utmost to give us exactly the opposite.

In Urban Explorers, Fetscher and screenwriter Martin Thau, deny us even the murders of certain characters flittering away chances of letting the blood flow, but the surprises are genuine and as bizarre and unlikely as the end escape for one character is you need that outcome to make amends for the cruel decisions that get you to that point. It is only when the film reaches its end that the overall picture completes and you realise that this is one carefully wrought horror noir. There is no shortage of new talent and though there is no great invention here, there is quantifiable skill and this is a team to keep an eye on.

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