Jan 3, 2012


I have one eye keenly focused on Australian horror. And while Wolf Creek came out to great acclaim several years back, and that same director’s Rogue was a fun splash of giant alligatorism, found footage movies are a whole horse of a different color (as is always the case with me). To date, I have seen two Australian found footage movies: Lake Mungo, and now, The Tunnel. To date, both have rocked.

I really can’t get into the actual mechanics of The Tunnel without first shedding light on something important: its marketing campaign. The Tunnel prides itself on being almost entirely fan-funded—an honorary (and sole) member of the self-proclaimed “$135K Project.” A pledge was made to send each person who donated money to the production at least an individual frame of the movie; and the higher the pledge, the bigger the reward/accolade. A goal of a $135,000 production budget was set in place…and it was matched. But why is this important enough to mention? Because upon the film’s completion, it was uploaded to the web for a limited time…by the filmmakers…for free consumption. It was downloaded over a million times. For a major studio, this would be a crushing blow. For a small, grassroots campaign, this is a victory.

I don’t know about you, but if I read somewhere that I could download someone’s movie for free—with no legal ramifications whatsoever—I would be a little hesitant. Thoughts of shoddy movies sold in those cheap slim line cases spilling off dollar store shelves and Target end caps come to mind. I mean, have you seen some of the awful dreck some studios actually paid for, and want YOU to pay for? So if the filmmakers of The Tunnel were just giving this thing away for free, how good could it be?

Pretty good. Great, actually.

Its setup won’t exactly knock your socks off with its originality—every movie of this ilk owes its existence to The Blair Witch Project, which will always be the watermark in the found footage sub-genre—but The Tunnel is told in a not-so-traditional manner. Much like Lake Mungo, The Tunnel is not just 90 minutes of characters wandering around in the dark and being terrorized by an off-screen monstrosity. Sure, that happens, but layered through the movie are sit-down interviews with our characters discussing their harrowing ordeal. As the movie draws out, and we take mental attendance of each character giving an epilogue-ish interview, we already know who will survive the events down in the tunnel…and who won’t. Some might see this as a detractor; others not. In the case of Lake Mungo, which depended on an entirely different story, I did not find this technique to be a detractor—in fact, it was a strength. It allowed the characters more time to convey just how the events of the film affected them on an emotional level. With The Tunnel, which is supposed to be a more visceral, in-your-face experience, I’m not so sure the technique works in its favor…

Investigative journalist Natasha Warner leads a three-man film crew down into an unused tunnel system beneath the streets of Sydney to follow up on plans suspiciously abandoned by the government to utilize an untouched water source in order to combat an ongoing drought plaguing the city. The death knell for these plans seemed to immediately follow the city's process in locating and removing the many homeless who had made the underground tunnels their homes, and the suspicious nature in which the plans were scrapped set Natasha’s journalistic mind reeling. In the movie she states: “When something goes unspoken, I have to ask why. That’s my job as a journalist.” And so her investigation begins.

Upon interviewing a homeless man named Trevor, whom she deduced was living in the tunnels, the crew is startled by his extreme emotional outburst that sends him running from his chair and into far corners of the room, crying and ripping at the walls with his fingernails...all in response to the question, “Has something bad happened to you down there?” It’s a great moment that lets both the audience and our characters know that there’s something under those streets the government does not want to deal with, nor even acknowledge.

With her production crew behind her (Pete, producer; Steven, cameraman; “Tangles,” soundman), she leads the descent into the darkness…and to the unimaginable thing that begins to stalk them one by one.

Our story-chasing news crew feels genuine, and we learn about each character in a very organic manner. It’s important for this kind of movie that each of them are likable, and that the actors playing them are believable. The Tunnel nails this with ease, introducing each character and detailing the relationships they all share with each other—which is to say, complicated. Natasha’s desire to descend into the tunnels is fueled by the notion she needs to prove herself as a journalist, and this impulse to do so may very well be clouding her judgment. Steve considers her to be a flavor of the week, never considering her to be a “real journalist.” He also alludes to Natasha having had a sexual relationship with both Pete as well as their boss, and while this is never verified, Steven is all too willing to believe it with a cocksure smile on his face.

Lazy exposition is a detriment to a film, and that is never a fault in The Tunnel. Through the aforementioned sit-down interviews, the POV footage, as well as news broadcasts, we learn the ins and outs of the story—all of it is presented in a very believable manner.

Now that our conflict is firmly established, we now ask ourselves: do our characters have a valid reason for doing what they are doing? Have they provided enough reasoning for going down into the icky, gooey sewer that makes homeless men cry? Well, being that they are journalists and they see the chance to blow the lid off a government conspiracy (and what journalists out there don’t want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein?) then yes, they have perfectly suitable reasons for going down into the dark. Steven states in the movie: “As a film crew, it’s our job to film and get coverage. It’s not our job to [question orders].” So in this case, we don’t need to be force-fed the reasoning behind their descent into the dark. What we’re given is more than suitable.

Once down in the tunnels, the action respectfully and believably escalates. The noises begin, as do the blurry “what the fuck was that?” sightings of something whisking past a corner. The characters become unfocused, lost, and pissed off. Tensions begin to rise. And then the creature makes its appearance. Here we come to the biggest complaint about found footage movies: Why, when the movie's antagonist makes its appearance, does the cameraman keep filming? Why don't they just drop the camera and run screaming from their adversary? Why do they still hold the camera even when they are trying to help a friend who is being violently attacked by their stalker? Well, as Steven explains earlier in the film, the act of going down into the tunnel never jibed with him—especially after Natasha attempted to bribe the security guard to allow them access, leading them to have to basically break in—so he decided then and there to film everything that happened, making Natasha liable for any legalities they may have occurred. Whether you like and accept that argument or not, at least the filmmakers thought far enough ahead to acknowledge it—something most found footage movies leave undisturbed.

Speaking of the creature, here is where my second and last real complaint of the film comes into play: The Tunnel is inconvenienced by not having more shots of the slimy thing slithering around in the dark. And I don’t mean the film needed a well-lit shot of the creature in all its glory—so clear and focused that I could count its testicles. I didn’t need to SEE the thing clearly. I just needed to see it more often. When the cameras capture brief glimpses of the creature in the dark—and its eyes glow green in the camera’s night vision—it’s creepy. The creature’s visage is captured just enough for you to get a basic idea—something almost human, yet not—but not enough so that it destroys the image your imagination has created after filling in the gaps. For me personally, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up during these scenes…and I wanted just a bit more. And while this may not be entirely accurate, when I think back, it seems as if the creature isn’t featured all that much. And when that feeling becomes more and more insistent, it feels as if the movie missed a huge opportunity to be more memorable. Despite this, and for such a low budget, the movie is remarkably well made, well acted, and creepy at times.

As previously mentioned, once you can see what kind of technique the movie is employing, the presence of the majority of our main characters during their sit-down interviews ruins some of the tension created in the tunnels. “Oh, so-and-so lives,” etc. Lake Mungo gets away with this technique because 90-95% of that movie is created with sit down interviews; The Tunnel depends on more traditional POV thrills to tell its story, and so it becomes a different monster altogether.

The filmmakers have openly stated they chose this technique in order to differentiate it from other films in the sub-genre, and I can truly respect that. However, I think it’s okay for your movie to be a little more familiar, so long as you're not sacrificing tension and scares. A strong story and strong characters can make even the most tired of premises come alive in a fresh new way, and The Tunnel accomplishes this handily.

While I can honestly say I look forward to the future endeavors of these filmmakers, part of me selfishly wishes they would make another found footage flick. They are clearly capable of creating something really god damn good, and while The Tunnel doesn’t quite reach that level, it comes pretty close.

The Tunnel has been available for some time in a hard-copy 2-disc format (for the more ardent supporters of the film), and comes with a bevy of special features (which can be bought here). Also available is a single-disc release, featuring audio commentary by the director and producer, which can be nabbed here.


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