The Deep Dark

The Deep Dark (Gueules noires) (2023)

The Deep Dark (Gueules noires) has its UK première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2024.

In 1856, in the prologue to Mathieu Turi’s The Deep Dark, a group of miners in Northern France breaks a hole through a tunnel wall, and discovers a big-clawed troglodyte before a gas explosion traps them down there. 

Exactly a century later, in 1956, Amir (Amir El Kacem), a resourceful bilingual Moroccan, gets a job in Northern France – on exploitation wages – working in a coal mine nicknamed Devil’s Island for its horrific conditions and high casualty rate. As the well-connected Professor Berthier (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who is looking for some very specific samples below 1000 metres, joins the crew to which Amir has also been assigned, history will repeat itself, and these miners too, led by tough, sincere Roland (Samuel Le Bihan), will become trapped deep down in the dark with ‘something ancient’.

While Roland is, like his boss (Philippe Torreton), an ex-fighter from the Maquis and as French as they come, his team is a multicultural collection of the working class – not just the French men Louis (Thomas Solivérès) and Polo (Marc Riso), but the Spaniard Miguel (Diego Martín), the Italian Santin (Bruno Sanches), and of course Amir. Even as Amir is immediately subjected by Louis to all manner of racial slurs, in fact, as Roland explains, miners are known as gueules noires, or ‘black faces’ (the film’s original French title), because both the hue and ubiquity of coal dust ensure that “once down there, Italian, Spanish, French, or Arab, we’re all the same colour.” Gueule is also the word for a ‘mouth’, especially that of an animal, hinting at the bestial threat to come (Black Jaws)- a threat which also does not discriminate between its victims. 

The Deep Dark pitches itself somewhere between Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Simon West’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), but unlike those films – and in direct opposition to Marshall’s subterranean horror – it features literally zero women in its cast, with only the coal seams given “broads’ names” like Clara and Mathilde. Perhaps this feminine nomenclature is pointed: for might not these men’s desperate, panicky fumbling about in deep holes, vulval cavities and uterine chambers suggest a crisis of masculinity, as they struggle even to survive what they desire down there, let alone to emerge from it satisfied? “You’re the monsters!”, Amir will eventually insist of several double-crossing, murder-minded colleagues – but there is also just a hint of the monstrous feminine here, aroused from its slumber only when the right passage is entered and the right button pushed, and terrifying these poor, lost men with its hungry presence, as much maneater as ‘Eater of Souls’.

There is of course another monster, something primaeval, aggressive and Lovecraftian which, like these men, just wants to get up to the surface – and which reflects, tests and defines them in other ways. This creature might represent an opportunity for Berthier to commune with (a) God, for racist, homophobic Louis finally to utter something worth hearing from his ‘big mouth’ (grande gueule), and for Roland to complete a heroic mission of self-sacrificing sabotage that he failed to fulfil back in his war days. It might even, having made all these men a part of its much bigger, longer myth, live to be disinterred another day – but as to whether this particular repressed ever will actually return, we may not find out till 2056…

strap: Mathieu Turi’s ‘underground’ horror has a group of miners lost in both monstrous myth and their own confused masculinity

© Anton Bitel