Directed by Andy Fetscher
German director Andy Fetscher takes the backwoods horror genre underground with the seriously bleak Urban Explorer. The film weaves the tale of international gang of thrill-seeking young adults Lucia, Denis, Marie and Juna, who, under the guidance of local Berliner Kris, take to the derelict sections of the city’s underground for a highly illegal excursion into Urban Exploration. After making their way through perilous tunnels and forcing into an abandoned Nazi bunker, the group are caught in a sticky situation when Kris is seriously injured in a fall whilst making their exit.
With half of the group heading off to seek help, out of nowhere a hulking native of the underground, Armin, appears and offers his help to the remaining desperate spelunkers. Carrying Kris back to his home, ex-East German Border Guard Armin treats Denis and Lucia to a meal before, rather predictably for this type of movie, revealing that he’s more than just a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Queue our band of characters being thrust headfirst into a fight for their lives versus a frighteningly maniacal brute.
Said band of characters are admirably performed but desperately under-developed save for Kris and Denis. Never particularly unlikable, they are, however, woefully dumb – in particular the camera-toting Marie, who serves only to put the group in repeated peril with her love of all things flash photography. As Armin, German actor Klaus Stiglmeier steals the show entirely, being consistently threatening, unpredictable and intimidating – his very distinctive appearance lending a huge amount of character to the presentation as eccentricity preludes lunacy. Motivation for his murderous assault appears lacking, though it must be noted that the FrightFest screening was acknowledged as missing subtitles for some German-language scenes that offer hints in the way of explanation. Conversely, the lack of subtitles also helped to aid the sense of tension and instability during these scenes considering particular characters, alongside the audience, were unable to understand what was being said to or demanded of them.
Fetscher makes admirable use of legitimate underground tunnel locations, translating well the grit and peril involved with disappearing off the beaten track of such environments; yet, the oppressively dank surrounds, well shot as they are, don’t gel particularly well with the plodding nature of the film’s first half. The slow initial build-up, coupled with ostensibly endless scenes of nothing much but loosely-drawn characters shuffling through brick-lined hallways, serves to suck up time and attention spans, and some may find themselves struggling to stay involved.
And then the third act hits – Armin drops his mask, the film shifts gear into a mixture of torture and stalk ‘n slash, and things get very, very fucking nasty. Salvation for the ill-fated protagonists is dangled ahead, snatched away, and slapped in their faces — and the characters with which the most audience affinity has been developed die bloodily, torturously and hideously. It would be impertinent to reveal much about the kills, but with its ruthless treatment of its fodder, Urban Explorer proves itself to be a stunningly nihilistic piece of work delivered on a wave of shocking brutality and unremitting bleakness. Ultimately effective, and indisputably horrific, it’s a shame that it just takes far too long to get where it’s going – meaning that for some the horrors to be explored here may just remain buried in the undiscovered reaches of the later runtime.
3 out of 5