“The Curtain,” the first opening short of Saturday night’s Little Rock Horror Picture Show Theater B feature, debuted at Austin’s annual Fantastic Fest film festival — known mostly for irreverent, indie horror, sci-fi, and other nerdy, niche-genre offerings. Upon discovering a mysterious locked shower curtain in their new apartment, a deadbeat boyfriend and his cruel control-freak girlfriend soon discover the curtain helps contain a demon in their bathtub, leftover from an exorcism that took place years before. The film’s comic absurdity bears the marks of its origin — it was hilarious, gross, and deliciously mocked every character in its small cast.
The second opening short, “Going to Hell,” was directed by University of Central Arkansas film professor Bruce Hutchinson. It’s a brief psychological-zombie-thriller, in which a young, allegedly “infected” man is imprisoned in a house with his cynical sister and compassionate fiancee, as they try to decide what to do with him before he fully transforms. It’s a moody little set piece aided by some boilerplate horror-flick chick badassery.
“This is one of the best films we’re showing,” festival programmer Justin Nickels said as he introduced “The Tunnel,” a 2011 Australian thriller directed by Carlo Ledsema. Truthfully, he didn’t need to create any sense of expectation, because the film’s brilliant pacing and determined withholding of narrative clues confidently metes out the kind of ribcage-quivering tension that only solid horror pictures can.
The film opens as a documentary about a Sydney television news crew that suffers some mysterious trauma for the sake of covering a story about the sub-train-station tunnels that lie beneath the city. Through “found” news and surveillance footage, interviews and the cameras used by the crew as they climb deeper underground, we learn the story of Natasha, an overly ambitious TV journalist who finds a juicy lead about the abandoned tunnels, which were once appointed to house an elaborate water-recycling system until reports of disappearing homeless inhabitants frightened away the city’s interest.
After getting the green light from her boss, Natasha, who desperately needs this story to keep her job, fails to secure permission from the transit authority offices for use of the tunnels, and bluffs the camera team into assisting her with coverage. Everything we see of the underground action is culled from the nightvision camera and the large TV camera carried by the team.
Naturally, it goes without saying that this style of faux-verite handheld-camera footage owes much to “The Blair Witch Project,” which itself didn’t even offer the temporary respite of clean documentary-style interviews to soften the trembling ad nauseam DIY camerawork. However, evinced by the derivative “Paranormal Activity” franchise, it’s a formula that works. Couple that restricted scope of vision with pitch-black tunnels and other bourgeois fears of homeless people living underground, and you have strangling, ruthless tension that expertly delivers fright even when it comes in all the moves you expect.
The film’s only weakness is its inability to wrap up with the measured and detailed approach with which it began: storylines are dropped, hardly believable plot holes aren’t addressed, and the horrible trauma that the characters relate simply ends resolutely and with surprisingly little social commentary or sense of foreboding. Not that these are entirely mandatory traits of an excellent horror flick, but it seems curious when the first half of the movie strives to present itself so boldly.