From the start, we know that things are going to get very messy. An impressionistic montage shows a figure being scratched into a metal panel by the sharp tip of a corkscrew, water dripping all over a messy floor, a prone body, a flickering light, a smashed monitor screen, and fresh blood splattered over the buttons in an elevator. As the title, Down, appears in plain white capital letters on a black background, we are fully aware that this is also precisely where the film’s narrative is headed. All that remains is to work out how we get there on this race to the bottom.
Down is one of those films, like the telemovie The Elevator (1974), and like films from Abwärts (1984) to Blackout (2008), from Devil (2010) to Elevator (2011), and from Freefall (2014) to The End? (2017), that will trap its characters in the confines of a stalled lift, and then use this claustrophobic environment, where life literally hangs by a wire thread, as a microcosm for broader tensions and existential issues. This is also the latest instalment in Hulu and Blumhouse’s TV series Into The Dark, whose feature-length episodes make ‘holiday horror’ of calendar dates in their month of release. In the case of this February outing from director Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism, 2010; 13 Sins, 2014), events are set around Valentine’s Day, promising romance and an alternative, erotic meaning for the film’s title – like the repeated, repeatedly sexualised use of the word ‘down’ in the elevator scene from Class (1983). It is February, on, heh, Friday the 13th, and heading out of her office to catch a red eye to New York where she hopes to get back together with her ex Derek on Valentine’s Day, account supervisor Jennifer (Natalie Martinez) gets stuck in the elevator with Guy (Matt Lauria), who works in the same building.
As the hours go by, these two strangers get to know one another in a shared space. They start to banter and flirt, and in this artificial environment, on an enforced break from everyday reality, there is a spark, and they act on it. That is the romance – but it is part of the economy of Stamm’s film, with its intense Aristotelian unity of time and place, that the entire downward trajectory of a relationship, from initial meet-cute, intimacy and torrid sex to the arguments, the anger, the recriminations, the wish to part company, the pain, and then just the desire to kill each other, is all crammed into the film’s narrow spatiotemporal frame. One of these two characters is not being honest, indeed is an unhinged creep – but isn’t that so often what gets in the way of love?
Accordingly, Down is both a dark psychothriller and a genuine romance, locking both of these genres together within its pressure-cooker narrative, and showing what it really means to fall – or to be on fire – for someone. Despite the minimal location, Stamm keeps everything visually interesting by switching between ‘objective’ camerawork (from all angles), CCTV footage and recordings made by Jennifer on her smartphone – and by ever so slowly transforming the elevator’s sleek corporate interior into a ruin of broken glass and metal. Indeed, by the end that elevator has come to resemble the relationship that unfolded, and unraveled, so rapidly within it: smashed apart, with much collateral damage. Valentine’s Day is over, and romance is dead.
© Anton Bitel