The young-people-in-distress subgenre is nudged toward human-scale horror in director-editor-lenser Andy Fetscher’s effective second feature, “Urban Explorer.” Firmly located and filmed in the Berlin underground, pic cannily blends formula tropes with 20th century German political terror, from the Nazi era through the East German Stasi — and may put a damper on the fad of exploring urban sewer systems. Pic will rack up killer numbers overseas, and likely raise interest from a U.S. buyer with an eye for sequels.
The early passages quickly intro the quartet of city spelunkers eager to plunge into Berlin’s vast underground system of tunnels and constructions far below the U-Bahn subways. Though not readily apparent, the group reps a U.N. of youth: Lucia (Nathalie Kelley) from Venezuela, her American b.f. Denis (Nick Eversman), plus gal pals Marie (Catherine de Lean) from France and Juna (Brenda Koo) from Korea. They’re frisky, but about to get a sober dose of what’s facing them from Berliner guide Kris (Max Riemelt).
Kris’ main goal is to get the foursome all the way to a once-secret Nazi bunker and back in one piece. The bunker was recently discovered and then sealed shut by authorities, out of concern it would become a gathering place for neo-Nazi groups (a detail needlessly repeated in screenwriter Martin Thau’s fairly arch English-language dialogue). An early encounter with a group of thugs with mean-looking dogs portends trouble.
As they make their way toward the bunker, Kris instills fear in the group by describing the urban myth of the “Oden People,” tall Nazis who survived underground all these years and may have turned even more fiendish as a result. Fetscher skillfully develops the eerie atmosphere, but considering their many obstacles (rats, tricky passageways), the explorers manage to get to the bunker rather swiftly.
For all the Nazi talk, Fetscher and Thau set up a second- and third-act menace with more contemporary implications for the city of Berlin, and for Germany. The steps along the way toward the quartet’s encounter with Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier, who resembles an unholy melding of Lee Marvin on a very bad day with Klaus Kinski — with an incredible set of teeth), and the subsequent payoff plays out for near maximum impact.
Fetscher avoids the temptation to push the situation into an exercise in torture porn — an option he easily could have gone for — while nevertheless ratcheting up the horror. Indeed, his one-man-band combination of direction, lensing and editing proves crucial, displaying a balance of craft and patience in building layers of suspense under a horrific setting that goes beyond any urban explorer’s worst nightmare.
The cast of largely young unknowns and on-the-cuspers (like Eversman) are more than game, having to act in fairly disgusting non-studio interiors. Noirish shadows in the pic’s early stages give way to sickly greens and oranges later, while sound designer Nigel Holland adds considerable sizzle. Steven Schwalbe’s and Robert Henke’s score is standard stuff.