Monday, March 14, 2011

6 Underground

"Take me down, 6 underground,
 The ground beneath your feet,
 Laid out low, nothing to go
 Nowhere a way to meet"
-Sneaker Pimps

When I was eleven, I used to go see Reggie Jackson at the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum by myself via the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. It's probably due to this experience that I've always felt a positive association with subways. Likewise, whenever I see a subway setting in a film, I get amped up. 

Subway scenes have often had a memorable place in the history of cinema. From Walter Hill's The Warriors, to DePalma's Dressed to Kill, to Crocodile Dundee, subways have been scary, suspenseful, or even funny locations to set a scene in. However, it's the rare film that's set almost entirely in a subway. Here are six of my favorites that take place almost exclusively in the underground:

*Metropia (2009) 

In a dystopian near-future, all major European cities have been interconnected by a large subway system. A Scandinavian named Roger, avoids using the system until one day…

The unusual animation style in this is the film's strongest aspect. It's very unique, disconcerting and creates an odd sense of paranoia. It's almost the polar opposite of anime - a grey, nearly colorless and motionless palette, with big-eyed, exaggerated, limited motion characters. The villain corporate boss-man, Ivan Bahn, is particularly unnerving. Where a colorful, smiley-faced anime world creates a warm, trusting, friendly environment, Metropia intentionally creates a cold, uncomfortable one. This is a film you'd definitely want to be in the right frame of mind for when viewing. The story is familiar especially in the literary dystopian genre. It's not as mean as Orwell, or as bleak as Kafka, but it's pretty far from a feel good movie and is helped out mightily by the animation technique.  Vincent Gallo, in low key mode, does a good job voicing the main sad-sack character. Udo Kier is excellently creepy as the evil CEO Bahn. The rest of the characters serve their purposes, but don't really distinguish themselves in any interesting or unusual ways outside of their unnerving appearance. Of the six subway films, this was the weakest, but I found its look very captivating. 7/10

*Subway (1985)  

A safecracker named Fred hides out in a Paris subway and befriends some of its denizens. 

A light-hearted, whimsical, Luc Besson film with a French cast that blows the top off the charisma-meter. Christophe Lambert, with his weird, bleached, spiky, 80's hair, is the lead, and he has never been more disarming and debonaire. Beautiful Isabelle Adjani with her Princess Toadstool 'do is the love interest. Richard Bohringer, Jean Reno, Michel Galabru and my favorite French actor, Jean-Hughues Anglade as "The Roller", are some of the subway characters. Even with a wildly unbalanced style to substance ratio, there's an uncaring, glossy charm to the film that's irresistible. Great cinematography, along with an oddly likable Eric Serra soundtrack, and an additional song by Rickie Lee Jones, add to the very cool, quirky atmosphere. It won't convert Besson haters, but for those that enjoy "cinema du look" films, this is a must see. 7.5/10

*The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) 

Four men hold a New York City subway train for ransom. 

I appreciate this film more and more on every additional viewing. There's a seamless blend of acerbic comedy and taut suspense that few films can match. In addition, the real time component to the story coupled with the intense soundtrack gives the movie a solid pace that never flags. It does have a slight TV feel which actually works in its favor by giving the film a greater sense of immediacy. There's very little stylization with the camera or in editing which adds to its true crime/reality aspects. Every character is a well-drawn, NYC-type and gets a chance to throw out a good line. Kenneth McMillan as a borough commander and Tony Roberts as the pragmatic, get-it-done, deputy mayor are just two of the characters that made me laugh out loud in small but colorful roles. Walter Matthau is excellent in the lead as a smart, put-upon transit authority cop and Robert Shaw is spot-on as the cold, efficient ringleader of the hijackers, Mr Blue. For fans of subways, heist films, 70's film or cinema in general, this is an essential.  8.5/10

Creep (2004) 

A somewhat obnoxious businesswoman/party girl tries to get across London via subway in order to meet and shag George Clooney. Bad times ensue.

Christopher Smith, who made 2009's excellent Triangle, wrote and directed this disturbing subway horror film starring the great Franka Potente. For a change, Potente plays a somewhat unlikeable, but still empathetic character. The characters she encounters in the subway are excellently acted especially the Paul Rattray and Sean Harris characters. Smith creates an unsettling atmosphere that alternates between the bright, deceptively safe waiting areas for the trains, and the unknown subterranean depths of the subway and sewer system. A nice original score by The Insects adds to the fun. 8/10

End of the Line (2007) 

A Toronto nurse, on her way home from work, encounters some persistent religious zealots. Once again, bad times ensue.

Canadian horror written and directed by Maurice Devereaux that's not as stylish as Creep, but does have a pace-y, suspenseful, and darkly humorous story. The largely unknown cast do a really fine job of creating tension with Robin Wilcock playing a great antagonist that I really wanted to kick in the nads. There's a very nice logical twist near the end and a final scene that doesn't ruin the film but opens it up to debate. I enjoyed the piano driven score by Martin Gauthier as well. The only problem I had was with some of the Christian stereotypes, especially the fat, white televangelist who was a bit too on the nose, and the 'Brothers, Sisters' psalm the cult was singing was a bit much as well. Otherwise, it's a smart, engaging little horror film. 7.5/10

Kontroll (2003)

A group of subway ticket inspectors in Budapest deal with hostile passengers, rival co-workers, a hooded killer and an angry bear.

This is my hands down favorite subway movie of all time - a wonderfully absurd, slyly political and surprisingly haunting film by Nimród Antal. The look of the film is incredible with striking shots of the interior of the endless, airy, shiny, immaculate Budapest subway system. It resembles nothing less than an immense, post-modern, fairy tale kingdom of chrome, florescent lights and tile. Whereas the NYC system looks very grungy, lived in, but strangely comfortable in Pelham, Antal shoots the Budapest underground as an antiseptic, other-worldly limbo that's somehow unfriendly despite its cleanliness, sturdiness and awesome size. 
The story initially follows a somewhat inept, but likable, crew of ticket inspectors through their workday. In the latter half of the film, however, it settles on their leader, Bulcsú, played very winningly by Sándor Csányi, and his battles with a rival crew chief, his run in with a mysterious killer and his shot at romance with, um, uh… a girl dressed as a bear. Along with Csányi's performance, the surprisingly beautiful Budapest underground and a great original electronic score by Neo, I haven't been so charmed by a film in years. 9/10

*Currently available on Netflix Instant Watch


  1. Great post! As someone who commutes every day in NY (and who spent a year dealing with the Moscow Metro) I'm always baffled by how few good subway horrors there are out there. I've never heard of Kontroll or Metropia, so they're going on the list!

    I got to watch Pelham 123 (fitting, since my subway stop is actually Pelham Parkway, fun fact) at an outdoor park screening last summer, which was a joy. Just a fun, fun film.

    And I *think* you know about my adoration for End of the Line. It's not perfect, but to me, it's soooooooo good, especially as an example that modern horror CAN be scary and original.

  2. Thanks Emily! I must have seen Pelham a dozen times, and I never tire of it. If you ever see Hector Elizondo on your commute though, run for it!!!
    It is odd that there aren't more horror films set in subways, they are ideally suited as evidenced by End of the Line. Kontroll is a great film out of Hungary that made me want to go to Budapest just to use the subway system (and maybe fight with a ticket inspector).