Catacombs is not a good movie; it's more meritorious than the excremental Creep (2004), but like that amateurish attempt to concoct an urban myth in the bowels of a major city, it suffers from underfed characters, a clumsily erected structure, and stylistic flourishes that fall flat to the ground.
Creep was touted in some circles as some new benchmark in horror, which its director certainly believed in the kind of self-delusion one finds among filmmakers when they become incapable of seeing the warts in their work after such close involvement as writer and director, but the makers of Catacombs came from very different backgrounds (unlike his fellow co-writer/co-director David Elliot, this was the feature length film debut of comic and graphic novel illustrator Tomm Coker), and whatever high hopes the filmmakers had for their thriller debut, they quickly discovered their film lacked a certain panache.
Their commentary track is relatively straightforward, but the duo make efforts to explain the various events that reshaped their film several times, resulting in what's billed as the Uncut Edition / Directors' Cut on DVD.
After the death of co-producer Gregg Hoffman in 2005, the filmmakers stepped back for a while until they began test screenings, and decided to goose their film to help it succeed in a market where the style and gore of Saw II and Hostel were raking in significant returns at the box office.
Reshoots mostly involving R-rated flashback footage was integrated into the film, and the $2 million production was rushed into European and Asian theatres with a sound mix that lacked the kind of sonic density and textures ultimately applied to the film for this DVD edition (plus a newly animated opening shot), and its long-delayed North American release, nearly 2 years after its completion.
It's another curious example of a recent thriller/horror film that underwent some major changes before being released to theatres and/or home video - going back less than 2 years, Captivity, Halloween, and The Invasion all went through re-shoots and editorial hell before being unleashed to the masses – but Catacombs differs in that the film wasn't radically altered after its theatrical run; the changes followed early preview screenings, and the filmmakers and producers were right to interpolate some vibrant material in a film that more or less has a character wandering though tunnels and caverns with a $3500 flashlight powered by one amazing battery cell.
The film's hook is simple: a young woman (Shannyn Sossamon, again trapped in a lesser thriller outing, like the muddled The Order) runs from a feral madman hungry for white meat in the sonically inert catacombs beneath Paris, and one can see how the film is a slight spin on The Descent template: instead of a group of empowered women trapped underground, it's one; and in place of a personal tragedy driving the heroine, it's an ongoing mental illness worsened by a lack of uppers, thereby mutating her perception of reality.
Like The Descent, the finale plays tricks with the character's perception of her final moments in the nightmare, and while equally cruel, the twist that caps Catacombs falters largely because, like Creep, two-thirds of the film involve endless scenes of wandering, stumbling, and occasional flights from the feral goon we saw in the film's intro as he chased and killed a pretty ravette. (More on that shortly.)
The filmmakers also make use of a real subculture that houses raves beneath the Parisian catacombs where the skeletal remains of seven million cadavers were stored so the city's future dead could be housed in cemetery grounds. With 300 miles of tunnels at their disposal, the partygoers could move from one location to the next and evade police raids.
But the problems with Catacombs are lethal. Technically shot on film using practical lights (most of the film is lit by a singular flashlight or flare), the directors have managed to style their movie as a degraded DV production, which is a baffling creative choice given the results include blocky compression artifacts in low-light shots that are devoid of mid-level blacks. The decision to rely on practical lighting and strobing imagery robs the visuals of genuine menace, and most shots have little depth of field, and compliment that shallow characterizations of an emotionally sensitive girl, her bitchy sister (played by singer Pink), and a group of fellow partygoers who have zero depth or resonance.
The flashback montages are stylistic mirrors of the circular crab shots, blurry edits, missing frames, and ratcheted camera movements found in the first two Saw films, making Catacombs feel like a production plopped onto the studio's assembly line and tweaked with editorial flourishes that have little in common with the directors' attempts to craft an original style.
Just as grating is are rapid shutter filters and flash edits meant to add hyper-kinetic sensations to the visual tempo, but that too proves to be a blunder, affecting the whole film like a syndicated TV transfer that's been time-compressed for more commercial breaks; the performances seem sped-up, the camera movements clunky, and the editing faux chic. Equally corrosive to the film's look is the DVD's 4x3 transfer that reduces the film's bit rate and makes one suspicious if the master's flaws would've been lessened in an anamorphic transfer, or exaggerated.
(One does notice some obvious qualitative shifts between some digital shots, such as the heavily compressed aerial stock footage of Paris from The Bourne Identity, and the razor sharp text for the new sound mix artisans spliced into the soft focus end credits.)
The new sound design is punchy, but there are some serious misfires: a subtle, annoying, slightly offset panting motif in the right channel doesn't elevate our perception of Sossamon's peril as she runs endlessly down pathways, tunnels, and stairwells; and the grunting of the cannibalistic madman – lauded by the directors in their commentary track - sounds like some schmo in a recording booth having an asthma attack, rendering the killer's assaults completely laughable.
The main theme as explained by the filmmakers is the need to be scared as a means to jolt oneself back to reality, and in its more extended form, the need to take responsibility for one's life and stop whining and wallowing moments of indulgent fragility.
Fine enough, but what could have been reworked into a tighter, crueler tale of a prank gone wrong is handled amateurishly in a script and feeble direction that have no sense of pacing, has the heroine get thrust back into the catacombs after a police raid (all she had to do was wait and stand still, and she'd be spending the night in a drunk tank instead of running from a ghoul), and plot logic that's ill from the get-go: according to the writer-directors, the pre-credit killing montage is apparently a “fantasy” sequence tied to the sister's delusions (hardly clear at any point in the film); and the reason to lure Sossamon to Paris was to shock her into some kind of sanity, and end her dependency on uppers.
From the intro scenes of Sossamon learning basic French and her general unease with customs at the airport, she's sensitive, but not the emotional mess and ‘drama queen' sister Pink claims her to be, and since nothing of their past nor Sossamon's personal demons are revealed by the screenwriters, the whole reason to apply a prank guaranteed to erode her psyche makes no sense beyond inter-sibling sadism; the only logical action in the film has the emotionally shattered sister taking a pick ax to Pink because she's just a nasty bitch with running mouth disease. No lesson learned, just knee-jerk payback after a lifetime of nagging before hailing a cab and heading back to the airport in a blood-splattered nightie.
[END OF SPOILERS
With a more creative director and skilled writer, Catacombs could be remade into a tight B-thriller with an effectively rendered cruel payoff, but even with the revisions applied by its creators, in its current state, it remains a desiccated shocker.
The film's flaws notwithstanding, Maple's DVD, replicating the U.S. Lionsgate release, offers a decent array of extras. The filmmakers have room to explain their vision and defend their creative choices, and a storyboard gallery showcases Tomm Coker's striking sketches with a commentary track.
The collected images refer to filmed and unfilmed scenes (including a nightmare mirror sequence that added overheated images of the catacombs, the killer, and body parts), deleted scenes (some shots filmed, but none surviving), sketches of the ambitious set designs and miniatures scrapped due to the film's ridiculously tight budget (the $2 million Saw films are twice as large), and re-shoots with actual scene comparisons.
In his comments, Coker reveals his frustration of how difficult it is for technicians to literally realize his sketches, and how some of his drawn ideas, regardless of how haunting they appear in black and white, are completely irrelevant to the film's plotting and pacing. Had some of the grand concepts and deleted scenes been used, Catacombs would've suffered from an even greater clutter of themes and ideas wholly familiar to the writer-directors, but confusing and frustrating for viewers.
The making-of featurette includes the usual EPK interviews with the cast & filmmakers (including Romanian actor Sandi Dragoi before his voice was re-dubbed in the final mix), brief shots not in the Directors' Cut (like Sossamon dropping a flare down a hole), and short comments about the French catacombs (nicely recreated by the Romanian art directors from stills taken of the authentic locations).
The last extra is a kind of making-of featurette on “Blue Butterfly,” a song written by Japanese rock star Yoshiki and sung by Violet UK. Intercut between film clips are moments from the recording session, and the featurette's basically a promo for the ersatz ‘music from and inspired by' soundtrack album released in Japan, featuring the theme song (heard over the end credits) but no other material from the film or score proper.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan