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Thursday, February 20, 2014

20FT BELOW: THE DARKNESS DESCENDING -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review is based on a barebones screener so there's no mention of the final DVD's tech-specs or bonus features.)

The low-budget thriller 20FT BELOW: THE DARKNESS DESCENDING (2014), which is based on the five-episode 2009 web series "The Darkness Descending", has the look  and feel of a small-scale project that didn't quite gel despite the fact that its creators really cared about it. 

Frank Krueger  wrote, executive-produced, and stars in this story of good vs. evil homeless people living in the subway tunnels of New York.  He plays Jake, an ex-cop who chooses to live "twenty feet below" to escape a reality that includes the tragic death of his wife.  Krueger gives an earnest performance and sorta reminds me of Patrick Wayne.

Kinga Philipps (Austin Powers' mom in GOLDMEMBER), also a producer, plays plucky investigative journalist Chelsea, who brings her camcorder into the tunnels to get the scoop on the disenfranchised and encounters more than she bargained for when she runs into the evil Angel (Danny Trejo at his yakkiest), a would-be revolutionary against...oh, you know, the usual stuff, giving a bunch of the punkier tunnel dwellers a vague motivation to be really hostile.

Ex-cop Jake, of course, will be forced to help his fellow good-guy homeless people against Angel and his MAD MAX rejects while the experience helps him overcome his own despair.  During this process we'll meet his colorful friends including graffiti artist Harmony (Wylie Small, NAKED GUN 33 1/3: THE FINAL INSULT), a comfortingly maternal presence to all the younger subterraneans, and Gabriel (Tiffany Adams), who organizes the underground nice into sort of a kumbaya campout klatch who sit around the campfire basking in each other's good vibes. 

Aside from a couple of kooky (but harmless) characters here and there, this is one of the most idealized depictions of homelessness I've seen.  More than anything, they seem like a community of happy, well-adjusted people who live fairly fastidious lives save for a few tastefully-applied makeup "smudges" and clean but comfortably rumpled clothes. 

Jake showers under a conveniently broken water pipe and lives in what looks to be a private apartment, while Gabriel herself is practically fit to model for the cover of "Good Housekeeping."  I'm not saying all homeless people should be depicted as unkempt and mentally ill, but geez. 

Joining Chelsea as representatives of the surface world are good cop Smitty (Kristoff St. John, "The Young and The Restless") and Louis Mandylor (SINNERS AND SAINTSBARE KNUCKLES) as homeless-basher Lockeheed.  Some of the film's best moments are the clashes between these two opposing cops, with Mandylor doing his usual reliable job of portraying a sleazy slimeball.

Trejo, on the other hand, is forced to scowl and bellow endlessly as he creeps in and out of the darkness portraying the resident boogeyman of the story.  In fact, everyone ends up wandering around in the dark as though trapped in an abandoned warehouse that's standing in for underground New York.

This helps disguise the meager production values but also renders much of the film murky and claustrophobic, with clunky camerawork that stays too close to the actors and often seems a little off during the action scenes.  An overly intrusive and often jarringly nerve-wracking musical score doesn't help. 

Worst of all is one of my pet peeves--the writer's convenience/contrivance of having people reveal their innermost thoughts into someone's camera.  "Stargate: Universe" suffered greatly from this with its "kino diaries", and here, Chelsea's status as an investigative reporter gives scripter Krueger a chance to indulge his characters in endless reflective monologues that often turn maudlin and/or pretentious.  What's worse, these interludes continue to occur even when the middle section of the film is already creeping along at a snail's pace.

Things finally get a little more exciting when Angel's crew whip up some homemade pipe bombs to detonate in various points within the subway station itself.  Officers Smitty and Lockeheed, with their conflicting agendas and methods, add to the tension and give Jake yet another problem to deal with while trying to stop Angel and protect his fellow societal outcasts. 

But the uneven pacing and awkward staging of the climactic scenes work against what director Marc Clebanoff (BREAK, THE PINK CONSPIRACY) is trying to achieve.  Add to this a general lack of realism and a tendency toward the melodramatic, and 20FT BELOW: THE DARKNESS DESCENDING never quite manages to ascend to the surface. 

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