Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DARK DESCENT (2002)

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
                                      – Michael Corleone

It was all supposed to go so smoothly.  Just one U.F.O. (Unified Film Organization) review with DEEP SHOCK (2003) and then I’d be out of their range.  Fate, however, had different plans. When I posted my review last week, fellow film fanatic Torsten Dewi – curator at the German site Wortvogel and co-writer of the best book on Charles Band – suddenly made me aware of more UFO films involving deep sea diving. Titles like ESCAPE UNDER PRESSURE (2000), DARK DESCENT (2002), and the shark themed duo of SHARK HUNTER (2001) and DARK WATERS (2001).  I didn’t know these films existed and didn’t need to know.  Then, as if some part of a conspiracy, Marty McKee – the man behind Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot – sweeps in and says, “DARK DESCENT is OUTLAND underwater.  And it’s terrrrrrible.”  Damn it…sold!

I chose this one since it had Dean Cain in it.  Oh, and because I’m a huge fan of OUTLAND (1981).  Cain’s rise to stardom is pretty unique in that he was an athlete who became an actor but could actually act. Signed to the Buffalo Bills after graduating from Princeton, Cain never got to play a second in the NFL due to a knee injury, so he turned his eyes toward acting (he had actually been in some films as a kid, including the drama THE STONE BOY [1984] directed by his stepdad Christopher Cain).  He toiled around for few years in small parts on TV before hitting it big by securing the lead role in LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.  Uh, he played Clark, not Lois. The show ran for four seasons (1993-97) and was pretty popular (according to Wikipedia, the third season averaged 15 million viewers per episode). It was so popular that rumors popped up that Cain and his co-star Teri Hatcher would also appear in a new theatrical Superman feature.  But taking a popular character and equally popular show and transferring it to the big screen just makes too much damn sense in Hollywood. So what did Warner Bros. do instead?  They paid Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage an obscene amount of money to not make a Superman film (the ill-fated SUPERMAN LIVES). Now that is some Hollywood logic right there.  Sadly, Cain’s career never recovered.  While he did get into theaters with the odd crime-comedy BEST MEN (1997), he soon found himself starring in tons of terrible direct-to-video features.  His career, you could say, took a DARK DESCENT.

The film opens with a plunge to the bottom of the ocean to a huge underwater mining installation.  Now what they mine is up to the viewer since we are never told; you’re on your own a lot with this film.  Whatever it is must be important as this huge facility houses a railway station, bars (imagine that episode of BAR RESCUE!), and whore houses to keep the Eastern European workers satisfied. Also keeping them in check is its own police force with Will Murdack (Dean Cain) as one of the top shotgun toting marshals.  Yes, shotgun toting…underwater facility. (“Hey, it worked on Jupiter’s moon,” screams writer-director Daniel Knauf.)  Along with his partner Niles (Scott Wiper), Murdack tangles with baddie Vlad (Julian Vergov) and his prostitute beating clan in the opening minutes.  One brother gets killed and Vlad swears his revenge, blah, blah, blah.  All in a day’s work for an underwater law enforcement office, who, as his boss says, keeps folks “free from fear, free from violence.”  Will Murdack also just happens to be retiring.  Did you say retiring? Uh oh.

Will and Miles also begin investigating a series of suicides among the crew men. Again, we’re given no timeframe here; we just cut to a scene of a guy telling them how a crew member fell into a hypnotic daze while out in the water (one of only two scenes that actually have people out in the ocean). Nine suicides have happened in the last month and the only common factor among these men is they were taking the drug Xyloban.  Damn, anyone remember Kamen Rider Xyloban? Will’s investigation takes him to Dr. Petrov (Valentin Ganev) the resident psychologist who you know is crazy because he obsesses over his matryoshka dolls.  Will had also been seeing him because of claustrophobia issues, the death of his wife and child, and dealing with his submerged sex partner Bin (Biliana Petrinska), who is now seeing Miles.

The "beautiful" life-altering
hallucinations seen by the crew...really!
As if all of this drama couldn’t get any worse, Will gets notice from his topside contact Marty (William Zabka) that Vlad and his cronies have been released from prison.  A guy named Marty delivering bad news?  Sounds familiar.  Seems some mysterious company paid Vlad’s $400,000 bail and he is heading back to the station for revenge.  Apparently arresting these men when they arrive is too much of a hassle for Will’s superior, so he just gets our lead on the first shuttle out of there.  But when Will sees a dangerous situation – a dazed worker has bored through the station walls with his jackhammer; apparently the walls are only an inch thick – he heads back to help out.  Also, he gets to do a little more investigating on what is going here with all of these suicides.  SPOILER: The Transglobal company has been giving men four times the legit dosage in order to increase productivity.  Wait, a corporation acting recklessly to increase profits? What is this silly fiction? END SPOILER  Anyway, we’re an hour in and not much has happened.  Finally, Vlad and his men arrive with their big guns. To show just how mean these men are, one of them grabs a magazine from someone and puts his cigar out on it.  Have you ever seen such cruelty?   Okay, can we finally see some action?

McKee was right in that this film is basically OUTLAND underwater, which really means that it is HIGH NOON (1952) underwater.  Writer-director Knauf – using the pseudonym Wilfred Schmidt (you know something is wrong when a guy takes a fake name to sound more German) – probably wasn’t even aware of that fact.  I’m willing to be he wasn’t aware of much.  DARK DESCENT will just leave viewers dangling regarding such silly concepts as coherent storytelling or an easy-to-follow timeline. For example, Knauf makes zero distinction in the transition from Vlad’s arrest to his subsequent escape and return.  Was it too hard to have a title card that said “six months later” or something?  Then again, this is a filmmaker who set his film underwater and only had two minutes of people actually underwater.  Even worse it is all CGI water.  I think the closest Cain came to getting wet on this film was his shower before heading to the set.

The sad part is that there are the makings of an enjoyable feature there.  After all, that is how the devious Marty hooked me – “OUTLAND underwater!”  The film actually does a few things right.  I think Cain exhibits a certain amount of charm and his final solution to dealing with Vlad by creating a nuclear meltdown is a ballsy and outlandish choice.  Ha, OUTLAND-ish!  Also, there are a couple of cool death scenes involving the closing iris doors that function in case of flooding.  Unfortunately, we’re still saddled with a budget that probably wouldn’t have covered the Nic Cage hairpieces in that failed Superman flick.  The majority of the action takes place on the same U-shaped hallway that looks like it was a set for a space station.  Knauf tries to get more value out of it by having different colored levels, but when your production value comes from switching light bulbs on the set, you know times are tight.  It is too bad because I really wanted to see OUTLAND underwater and after DARK DESCENT, I still do.

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