The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Surprising amounts of period detail and a kitchen-sink approach to horror make Mathieu Turi’s creature feature a frighteningly good time
Searching for a way out of 1956 Morocco, Amir (Amir El Kacem) forces his way onto a bus bound for the coal mines of northern France. However, Amir is assigned to “Devil’s Island,” a mine notorious for the physical toll taken on its workers. When a rich professor charters use of the mine, Amir is roped in with a small crew to guide him into the deepest depths a thousand meters down in search of a mysterious archaeological discovery. But when the crew’s only way out crumbles, they realize far more ancient things are also lurking with them in the deep dark.
Mathieu Turi’s period horror film is a lean, mean creature feature that manages to evoke a wide range of Francophone frights, including claustrophobic suspense and dread, buckets of gore, and plenty of cosmic terrors for knowing fans of weird tales.
What immediately impresses about The Deep Dark is the efficiency at which Turi introduces his group of protagonists. Amir’s novice mineworker allows the audience similarly familiarize themselves with the sociopolitical dynamics of 50’s era French mineworking. The mines are at once a melting pot of cultures but also a breeding ground for xenophobia; while fellow workers may be French, Italian, or Spanish, all are seemingly perturbed by the presence of newer, cheaper workers from Morocco (while all championing their own immigrant roots). Playing to a storied tradition of skills-based stock characters akin to The Thing and The Descent, Turi also establishes how their day-to-day skills contain the seeds of their own survival once the movie shifts gears from social drama to full-on horror.
The terror of The Deep Dark cleverly plays with the primal suspense that a dark enclosed space can provide, whether it’s the sound design of screams bouncing around theater walls or the briefest glimpses of something terrifying as it passes through the light. One of the most memorable sequences plays into the era’s usage of flashbulbs in photography, as an ill-fated character uses them to reveal just how much closer he is to death. Turi’s ruthless expedience just as well applies to The Deep Dark’s horror, finding new, quick, and memorable ways to use what could be a repetitive setting to his advantage.
The production design, shockingly revealed to be all practical locations in a post-film Q & A, is equally impressive. The winding twists and turns of the mines are nail-bitingly unpredictable, with a unique unease to be found when natural cave formations give way to carved brick, ancient inscriptions, and cave drawings of elder gods. The design of the film’s central creature thankfully employs practical effects with fleeting instances of CGI, lending it a bone-cracking grossness that makes the characters’ terror feel achingly genuine.
The Deep Dark may not ultimately reinvent the wheel when it comes to its shocks, but the film’s unique period setting is rich with detail and thematic depth, and its kitchen-sink blend of horror makes this subterranean shocker well worth a watch.
The Deep Dark had its international premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. It is currently seeking U.S. Distribution.