David Michael Hillman
Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 11 October 2008
Source Trans World Entertainment VHS
Categories 31 Days of Horror V
At exactly 11:45 pm, a young couple scrambles up the final stretches of a steep mountainside. Though the woman thinks the solitude is perfect for a quick roll in the hay, her beloved sternly rebuffs her advances, reminding her that they were hired for one reason and one reason only: to blow open the sealed entrance to the Golden Spike Mine. With his amorous companion nervously watching, the man descends into the mine’s cavernous antechamber, carelessly tossing aside a rotting cross of wood, and setting about planting his explosives. But then he hears an odd noise and moves to investigate. The woman calls out to see if he is okay. He doesn’t answer. She calls again. Suddenly, she hears him—he is shouting frantically for her to run.
Though we don’t actually see who or what is living within the abandoned mine, muffled screams and close-ups of the couple’s petrified faces make it clear that neither of them live to tell their tale. Aside from whetting our appetite for the subterranean horror to come, this economical opening scene affords us - with a minimum of explication - two vital bits of information: one, there is something evil living within the mine, and two, someone out there - whoever it was that hired the couple to open up the mine at midnight - likely knows something about it.
Such narrative efficiency is not uncommon in an opening scene from an ’80s horror film. In fact, when settling in for an evening of terror from that magical decade, chances are good that in the first few minutes you’ll experience something similar to the situation described above. However, where untold numbers of such films follow up clever openings with tedium, often filing up their non-death scenes with incoherent and meandering storylines, The Strangeness - a model of narrative economy - consistently builds on the promise of its beginning, investing its remainder with both coherence and suspense.
For starters, after the midnight miners perish, we are immediately introduced to our main players: a pair of professional spelunkers, an obnoxious writer and his wife, a grizzled prospector, a geologist, and a shifty-eyed company man named Hemmings. After learning that the team has been assembled by Hemmings to survey the mine for possible gold extractions, we listen in as gruesome tales of the evil presence allegedly haunting the mine are relayed over a crackling campfire. Native American legends are recalled, along with newspaper accounts of the grisly end to several miners of yesteryear. His foundation of fear thus established, director-writer-producer (and co-soundtrack creator) David Michael Hillman gets the group underground, and allows his deft suspense storytelling abilities to take over.
By keeping the group small, and isolated in a confined space, Hillman gives us a chance to get to know his characters, and subsequently fear for them as they venture ever deeper into the earth. Though none of the players can truly be considered fully developed, the fact that not one of them is mere anonymous fodder adds substantively to the tension. In addition, Hillman admirably decides to have his cave-dwelling nemesis pick off the group members one by one, without the survivors witnessing the carnage. The future victims thus know that something is horribly wrong, and that they are surrounded by evil; they just don’t know what form that evil will take. Add in an exit-blocking cave-in and the constant threat of inter-group treachery, and we have a veritable powder keg of horror tension.
The film is also to be commended for its impressive manipulation of light. Most low-budget horror films shy away from too many night scenes, knowing full well that without proper lighting, such potential moments of terror wind up being completely indecipherable in the dark. Here, however, with nearly the entirety of the film taking place in a gold mine, excessive artificial lighting would have undermined the integrity of the project. Impressively, Hillman and company make judicious use of flashlights, helmet and hand lamps, and flares to provide ample illumination. This technique also significantly enhances the inherent creepiness of the mine, with many shots composed of nothing more than a feeble pool of light from a tremulous lamp, with the threatening blackness closing in on all sides. In one of the film’s most impressive scenes, the flashbulb of a camera serves as the sole light source, each successive shot momentarily revealing the position of a relentlessly advancing adversary.
Such impressive technical accomplishments aside, I’m sure that there are some viewers out there who may be inclined to denounce the film as predictable, and perhaps even boring, in its unwavering dedication to a tried and true horror formula. After all, if you know what’s going to happen, what’s the point in watching? To such criticism I would answer that the joys of The Strangeness lie not in guessing the outcome, but in simply reveling in the meticulous attention to detail - and obvious love - that went into this low-budget affair. From start to finish it’s clear that this is a film crafted by true admirers of horror, not money-hungry hacks. After years spent wading through dozens of antiseptic knockoffs, such authenticity, whenever it comes around, is much welcomed.
Trans World Entertainment
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