Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Waits Below (1985)

The US military is planning to install some kind of secret experimental radio transmitter in cave systems somewhere below a Central American country. Unfortunately, they have two problems. Firstly, they haven't found an actual cave entrance yet, and the major responsible for this particular transmitter, Stevens (Timothy Bottoms), is running out of time to get the device up and running in time for a manoeuvre. Secondly, a merry trio of anthropologists (Richard Johnson, Anne Heywood and Lisa Blount) with a hankering for caves is poking around in the very same area the military is interested in.

To solve the situation, the uniforms call in mercenary with a side-line in caving Rupert "Wolf" Wolfsen (Robert Powell, of all people), who has been hating Stevens for good reasons ever since the Vietnam War. Thanks to the efforts of Wolf and the anthropologists whom he befriends where Steven went the antagonizing route, a cave entrance is eventually found, but soon the men posted with the transmitter are attacked by mysterious forces and disappear together with the device. It's time for a rescue expedition consisting of Wolf, the anthropologists, Stevens and some redshirts. But who or what is waiting for them below?

What Waits Below's director Don Sharp was always a dependable man whose films are generally highly competent and watchable, and who always could surprise one by detours into actual brilliance. The film at hand isn't one of the latter, and the former it will only be for viewers with a bit of patience. For unfortunately, before the film gets to its actual meat in form of the adventurous cave expedition, there's an astonishing amount of introductions, dithering, and pointless nothing to get through that really starts What Waits Below off in a bad way. It's five minutes of set-up - most of the character bits could have been fruitfully moved into the caves - drawn out over thirty minutes plus.

Once the film finally gets going it doesn't exactly turn into an affair full of fast-paced excitement, but the acting is solid, the caves and cave sets are fun to look at, and the film does some half subtle, very British clever things with the lost world tropes it uses. It's also a film that doesn't want to explain the obvious, so it never outright states that the albino people are the descendants of a much more technologically advanced people who now give a religious, or at least ritual, meaning to the artefacts their forebears left behind. It's not much but I appreciate it nonetheless.

The other element of What Waits Below I find worth mentioning is its tone. On a plot level, the film is of course another lost world adventure film but Sharp stages large parts of its running time - until the final twenty minutes or so - as if it were a horror film, milking the caves, the mysterious disappearances and the way the underground people are only glimpsed and not seen, as if this were a monster movie. It's an interesting approach, and while I wish Sharp had taken it even farther - once the underground people are really revealed, they're just not that frightening or original anymore - it's an interesting way to go about things that give What Waits Below a degree of individuality despite the well-worn ideas it uses.

Of course, the effect of the unknown terror turning into just people might very well have been a very consciously used one, even if it weakens the film's effect as a horror film and an adventure movie. It is, at the very least, not improbable to read the film as a political allegory where the sheer supernatural bogeyman we built our political enemies into turns in the end out to be not all that different from ourselves.

Which, come to think of it, is quite a daring thing to attempt in a film that starts out this boring and indifferent.

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