Under the Mountain

Teenage twins find themselves in supernatural double trouble in this entertaining, well-mounted Kiwi children's thriller.

Teenage twins find themselves in supernatural double trouble in the entertaining, well-mounted Kiwi children’s thriller “Under the Mountain.” Following his widely traveled horror spoof, “Black Sheep,” New Zealand helmer Jonathan King takes aim at the prepubescent crowd, adapting a local novel first tackled for Kiwi tube and subsequent Nickelodeon syndication in the ’80s. Kids will be safely spooked by muddy ghouls, and adult guardians will feel the time pass comfortably. Weta Workshop’s convincing f/x ensure commercial potential but, without substantial marketing support from Disney, international prospects will be confined to ancillary. Local release is skedded for December.

Not to be confused with Disney’s similar and ongoing “Witch Mountain” franchise, the film opens in 1879 with Jones (Sam Neill, excellent) leading adolescent identical twins on an ill-fated trek across Auckland Harbor’s Rangitoto Island. Forms spring from the earth to claim the twins, who both carry intriguingly glowing stones, leaving Jones the sole survivor.

Post-titles, the story jumps to contempo rural New Zealand, where rambunctious twin high schoolers Rachel (Sophie McBride) and Theo (Thomas Cameron) have just learned their mother has died. Theo freaks out; Rachel attempts to reach him telepathically, but her brother abhors using their “special” skills.

Allowing their father grieving time, the pair are shunted to the care of an Auckland-dwelling uncle (Matthew Chamberlain). Cousin Ricky (Leon Wadham) is supposed to supply companionship (and offers clunky comic relief), but the twins are more curious about a spooky house nearby, the inside of which resembles a rancid swamp, and its inhabitants, who turn out to be more malevolent than neighborly.

Next day, Theo encounters Jones sitting on a hilltop, playing with fireballs. Except for his contempo garb, Jones looks exactly the same as he did in the 19th-century opening sequence. And he realizes Rachel and Theo may possess the right qualities of “twinness” to defeat the muddy neighbors who seek to destroy the Earth.

The script’s logic becomes less disciplined as the story’s momentum accelerates, but target auds are unlikely to be bothered as the special effects increase. While neither Cameron nor McBride exudes star quality, both make for realistic siblings and effective protagonists. Neill flawlessly supplies the requisite gravitas to make the yarn work.

King’s solid helming is buttressed by Richard Bluck’s luscious camerawork, which makes enchanting use of Auckland’s startling landscape. F/x work impresses, though it becomes somewhat predictable after the villains’ powers have been on show for more than an hour.

The boisterous score is cranked up to 11 from the get-go, and the sound design overindulges on standard horror shocks far too early for the near-apocalyptic final climax to have the desired effect.

Under the Mountain

New Zealand

  • Production: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a New Zealand Film Commission presentation, in association with NZ On Air, 120db Films, Index Films, Liberty Films, of an Index Films, Liberty Films production. (International sales: New Zealand Film Commission, Wellington.) Produced by Richard Fletcher, Matthew Grainger, Jonathan King. Executive producers, Chris Bailey, Chris Hampson, Trevor Haysom. Directed by Jonathan King. Screenplay, Matthew Grainger, King, based on the novel by Maurice Gee.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Richard Bluck; editor, Chris Plummer; music, Victoria Kelly; production designers, Ralph Davies, Kim Sinclair; art directors, Nick Bassett, Andy McLaren; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Prebble; visual effects supervisor, Charlie McClellan. Reviewed at PiFan (Family Fanta), Bucheon, South Korea, July 22, 2009. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Thomas Cameron, Sophie McBride, Oliver Driver, Sam Neill, Matthew Chamberlain, Leon Wadham, Chelsea McEwan-Miller, Michaela Rooney.