If nothing else, Chilean director Patricio Valladares is busy – he’s made Hidden in the Woods twice (once was frankly enough), shot a film (Vlad’s Legacy) in Turkey and ventured into pell-mell Lovecraftiana with Downhill. Shot in Bulgaria – with a script by Barry Keating (Nymph), Milan Konjevic (Zone of the Dead) and Dimitar Hristov, from a story by Italian film critic Loris Curci) – this may be Valladares’ best film to date, and is oddly reticent in its excesses given that it riffs on the likes of Michael Winner’s The Sentinel, Dario Argento’s Inferno and Lucio Fulci’s ‘doors of hell’ movies.
For the most part, it’s a slow-burn drama which attempts to build suspense and creepiness as widowered ex-cop Brett (Jason London) seeks a cure for his nightmares of a throat-cutting wife by taking a low-pressure job as caretaker to a corporately-owned apartment building in Sofia, which turns out to have fewer live residents than advertised. Most of his job consists of checking security footage of the heavily-monitored dark basement, where there’s an ornate wooden door (‘what do you keep behind that? King Kong?’) carved with tentacly medusa-bearded angry faces. His bosses Martin (Gianni Capaldi) and Goran (Nikolay Valentinov Lukanov) are evasive, insistent on protocols and obviously afraid of the building – though they keep saying they aren’t. Zara (Lorina Kamburova), the unfeasably cute coffe shop server who begins an affair with the broody loner, provides more ominous backstory for the building. If warning bells weren’t clanging enough, when Brett spots a strange movement on the monitor, he calls up Jacob, a consultant who turns out to be a) blind and b) Robert Englund doing his level best to be eccentric and sinister.
All the signs are present that the building – impressive locations and art direction – is on top of a gateway to hell, dimensional rift, phantom zone or monster-populated void … and Brett is plainly in the line of succession as its guardian, with the previous office-holder wheezing his last in the penthouse. But it doesn’t quite come together. The films this is modelled on sprung for weird manifestations and ultra-violence, but it’s as if Vallladares feels he got all that out of his system in his earlier movies and is trying for something a little artier, spookier and (even) more mainstream. It’s an admirable approach, and some of his cast – Capaldi, Lukanov and Kamburova, in particular – play with a nice, terrified ambiguity that does work up a sense of dread, but it may be that its basic outline is too familiar and its glimpses of the beyond too mundane (compare the real mind-stretching visions of The Endless or Twin Peaks Season Three) to really stick in the mind.
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