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Urban Explorer
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by Jay Seaver

"Look elsewhere."
1 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Sort my reviews alphabetically, and this one will wind up next to "Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness", a 2006 documentary made on a similar shoestring which also shot plenty of footage in places the filmmakers really shouldn't have been. The subjects of that doc will probably resent this horror movie something fierce - it's one thing to be seen as daring to the point of recklessness, another just to be stupid.

Four tourists have converged on Berlin to do a bit of urban exploring (sneaking into abandoned structures and infrastructure even if it's off-limits). Because of the illegal nature of the activity, they connected online and meet under aliases. "Mickey" (Nick Eversman) is American and excited, while his Venezuelan girlfriend "Mallory" (Nathalie Kelley) is not nearly so enthused. Brash "Haiku" (Brenda Koo) hails from Korea (though her accent when speaking English is quite North American), while camera-toting "Olympia" (Catherine de Léan) is from France. Their local guide, "Dante" (Max Riemelt), has offered to show them the "fahrerbunker", a recently discovered World War II bunker for Nazi party drivers that was quickly resealed to prevent modern hate groups from making a shrine of it. They still encounter some neonazis along the way, but an accidental fall proves a more immediate danger, sending two of the party to find help while the others stay with the injured member. Help does arrive, but in the form of disheveled hermit Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier).

The viewer may wonder, when watching Urban Explorer, whether its characters are meant to actually be any good at urban exploration. Nobody ever says that it's their first time, but none but Dante seem to have any particular skills. Heck, of the girls, only Olympia dresses like someone expecting to be in an environment featuring rusted metal, standing water, and biting animals - although to make up for her sensible clothing, it's her tendency to wander off and flash her camera that leads to many of the group's troubles. Dante is leading this apparent group of novices to a place he's never been before, and he's got an unusually casual attitude toward causing damage along the way. If this is deliberate, it's a bad idea - instead of believing the characters are maybe just a bit over their heads and having the rug pulled out, they seem doomed from the start - and if we're supposed to believe they're capable, well, that's just a huge misfire.

"Huge misfire" seems most likely, though, as the movie soon descends into an ugly morass of clichés and bad execution, including what may be the stupidest sequence I've ever seen in a horror movie. It starts with the "someone awakening handcuffed to a bed" chestnut (albeit only by one hand, making escape possible), has this person watch a friend be tortured and nearly murdered three times before running off (making a lot of noise) to search for a weapon much less effective than the heavy-but-grippable piece of steel bed frame still on the other end of the cuff... And that's without serious spoilers; things get a lot more nonsensical with detail. Sure, there are a lot of thrillers that fall apart in hindsight, but this is laugh-inducingly dumb in the moment, the sort of thing that might perhaps work as satire if there were any sign that this movie had any self-awareness or sense of humor. Instead, it's one of several mind-bogglingly silly action/"suspense" sequences that should have even relatively undemanding audiences asking why even a panicking person would react to a situation like that.

This, obviously, leaves the cast pretty much high and dry. None of the five actors playing the explorers are done a particularly spectacular injustice, at least - they're likable, good-looking kids who sell the material as well as they can and should all land on their feet. The show is inevitably stolen by Stiglmeier's Armin, who is genuinely individual and eccentric in a way that the rest of the cast really can't be, owning every scene he's in. He's the one that the audience can go in any direction at any time because Stiglmeier wrings every last drop of weird out of what he's given.

The whole cast does go above and beyond the usual call of duty, shooting a great deal of the movie on location with minimal doubling. There's a genuine sense of authenticity to these scenes, and for all the many problems the filmmakers have with the story, they sure do shoot the heck out of it, making the surprises found in the dark tunnels and the resulting mayhem look good (in appropriately inky, disgusting ways).

But, ugh, is there a bunch of unforgivable idiocy going on in those dark tunnels! Horror fans will put up with a lot, but there's a much better "urban explorers find trouble" movie to be made than this.

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originally posted: 07/29/11 15:16:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.

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