Artisan // 2001 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 12th, 2003
Your next stop...is hell!
In the 102-story Millennium Building in New York City (?), a group of overripe expectant mothers get trapped in a sauna-like population shifter and, once released, drop their dependents in one water-breaking barrage of babies. The Meteor Elevator Company comes out to investigate and finds everything ship shaft shape. A blind man bluffs his way into an empty lift tunnel and drags his seeing-eye dog to a dumb death as well. Another call to Meteor -- another clean bill of mechanical health. The next night a security guard has his head removed from his torso by the rogue people mover. Again, Meteor comes out -- again everything is sweaters and fruit rollups. This makes the building manager substantially less gay and his security staff more than a little concerned about Meteor's quality control. A feisty headline hungry journalist with tabloids in her eyes tries to discover the truth behind the rash of up and down disasters. But only after a skate rat is given the supersonic suicide shuttle service to the top floor (and back down again) and some women and children perish when their tourist trolley develops a severe case of floor aperturing do we get any kind of pro-active, pro-escalator rhetoric (especially since someone says the "T" word -- terrorism). Together with a misplaced ex-Marine Meteor mechanic who specializes in the "Doors Close" button on the light panel, our plucky Pulitzer pursuer discovers that a crazy German scientist has fitted the building's human shuttle system with a bio-chemical brain that may have developed a devious derangement of its own. Will they stop the super-intelligent/evil elevator from seeking its non-specific revenge on mankind, or will everyone simply experience The Shaft?
Some movies have their cinematic tongue planted firmly against the inside of their quirky cheek. Other films go one better, cramming that fleshy flap of fun so hard against the surrounds of their mirth mouth that you can see it clearly from the other side, waggling to get out. And then there is The Shaft, a movie so over the top and filled with sassy and brassy volley balls that it pushes through the epidermal envelope and wiggles its bad taste buds in churlish glee. Here is a movie that starts off with a rather randy sexual double entendre/consumer products warning label title (possible ad copy: "you too could get...THE SHAFT!") and then introduces its main villain as a killer elevator. That's right, Master Otis and his vertical convenience are the new Jason in town, and it's not long before heads roll, bodies bisect, and pregnant ladies drop their puppies in mid tower free fall. In the long history of fright flicks, there have been a few downright weird entities of evil -- the possessed refrigerator of The Refrigerator, the unsane cotton picker from The Mangler -- but none quite as squirrelly as Satan's express freight winch in The Shaft. Director Dick Maas, updating the plot and cribbing some actual dialogue from his own previous killer convenience film, 1983's Dutch De Lift, understands that there is more than a little suspension of disbelief required to accept a 8' x 10' room that moves up and down inside the core of a skyscraper as suspenseful or menacing. So he does something that other low-grade fright filmmakers should consider. He creates his own universe and logic and follows through on both with complete abandon. No power source for it to run on? Who cares, errant elevator is on the prowl. Wire and cables cut, keeping it from moving in a normal fashion? Too bad, wicked elevator's bloodlust is insatiable. Maas constantly circumvents the rules of the modern world to make his mechanical menace function as a viable villain. The Shaft is like science fiction mixed with shop class. It involves engineering of a near extraterrestrial variety.
Another bit of warped rationale comes in the casting. In order to make the audience believe this hacked up world of hooey, even if it's all in the fever dreams of a crackheaded architect, Maas loads the film with recognizable, if not instantly name bell ringing actors. He has an all-star cast of basically B-movie on the edge of respectability Hollywood stalwarts. Check out this title card: James Marshall (Twin Peaks), Naomi Watts (The Ring, Mulholland Dr.), Eric Thal (The Puppet Masters), Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Starship Troopers), Edward Herrmann (The Lost Boys), Ron Perlman (Blade II, Hellboy), and Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple, Joe vs. the Volcano). It's a smorgasbord of underappreciated, flying just under the radar Tinseltown talents. Each gets a chance to chew the scenery and individually they bite and masticate in fierce, fun fashion. Especially entertaining is Herrmann's near fainting spells at the mention of closing the elevators for...a couple of hours!!! ARGH!!, and Ironside's lament for his bio-techno living lift. Even when the dialogue coming out of their mouth sounds like dramatic experts from Alexander Yalt's translation of the original Dutch screenplay, these professional thespians sell it all with a serious sincerity that borders on the deranged. From venting arguments about full vertical duct inspections to obvious Nazi daycare jokes that threaten to cross the boundary lines of political correctness, The Shaft is a horror hoot that probably thinks it's a smart, scary observation on modern technology gone awry. But when it's housed in the guise of a devilish dumbwaiter, one with a swollen itchy brain in the middle of its UA approved electrical panel, something is obviously amiss in the film schools of Denmark.
It's too bad then that Artisan wouldn't allow Maas a chance at commenting on his film for posterity and its release on DVD. Since he made De Lift over 14 years before, it would be interesting to hear how he decided to change the story to fit the new millennium and those scenes he determined to keep from the original. Even better would have been for Fartsy Artsy to step up and offer De Lift as an extra -- either on a bonus disc or single layer branching. The compare and contrast aspects boggle the mind. As it is, the Edict enemies serve up this decidedly deranged film with a bad full screen transfer just rife with pain and scam non-OAR issues. The image is crisp and detailed. The framing and composition problems are abundant. One should not have to watch an optical switch from a shot of the actor to some of the action during a crucial thrill sequence. The audience should not be wondering whom characters are addressing. While it's not some manner of masterful aesthetic wonderwork, brutalizing the transfer in this fashion shows that, when it comes to releasing product on DVD, Arti-san only cares if the disc plays and that's about it, which is really too bad for a film like The Shaft. While it is not great horror by any far stretch of the human spirit, it is a daffy bit of cinematic daring doodie that delivers many more chuckles of disbelief than terror induced gasps. For all its faux fright trappings, it's really just a cautionary tale about failing to utilize the stairs when traversing from floor to floor. Next stop...ladies lingerie, big and tall footwear, orthopedic jock straps...and murder!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* IMDb: The Shaft
* IMDb: De Lift