Friday, 21 March 2014

Underground Lizard People

Director: Jared Cohn
Writers: Jared Cohn, Ed Erdelac
Producer: Joe Accardi
Cast: Caitlin Gold, Clint Byrne, Lauren Klemp
Year of release: 2011
Country: USA
Reviewed from: YouTube

Not quite an hour long, Underground Lizard People gives every impression of being a student film, and probably is, but it’s still worth a watch. It’s well-directed, well-acted, atmospheric, creepy and slickly professional. I mean, it’s not going to set the world alight, but there are worse things you can do with 55 minutes of your time.

Five New York students are going into a set of abandoned tunnels to film a documentary – and yes, that’s not the most original set-up, I’ll grant you. But these are generally sympathetic, rounded, believable characters, even if what they’re up to is a bit dumb. Jason (Clint Byrne) is the main protagonist, accompanied by camera-man Jack (Colin Walker) who fancies himself a ladies man but is really kind of a dick. Sound-girl Lynda (Lauren Klemp) is helping as a return favour for Jason’s help in editing her own student film. Cheryl (Courtney Hammond) is described as the ‘executive producer’ – she’s not part of the ‘Communication Arts’ department but is a member of some sort of student Fortean society which has bank-rolled the project (although it’s difficult to see what costs are involved). The final member of the quintet is Jason’s girlfriend Rachael (Caitlin Gold) who has no purpose on the team – she’s majoring in costume design.

The ‘Banning Tunnels’ are long-abandoned railway tunnels full of graffiti and homeless people. The gang use bolt-cutters to snap a chain on a gate but there must be some other way in that the bums are using. As they make their way down the tunnels, the students pause occasionally for Jason to do to-camera bits.

What’s not believable is the lack of preparation. No-one seems to have come dressed for urban exploring – Rachael is actually wearing pumps and a short, strapless dress, although at least she’s not in heels. Lynda – asthmatic, claustrophobic Lynda – is shocked at the idea that there might be rats around. Really? You’re going filming in an abandoned railway tunnel and you’ve only just realised there could be rats? That might work if she was an airhead bimbo but she’s not. Like the others, she’s presented as reasonably intelligent.

Jason doesn’t seem to have briefed his team at all and it’s only once they’re underground that he mentions the legends of lizard people, blamed by conspiracy theorists for the disappearance of a gang of surveyors 18 years earlier. Although we’re not actually very far underground at this point, reverse shots clearly showing the tunnel entrance about 20 feet away.

Taking a side-tunnel, the team explore further, getting more and more freaked out and splintering further as personal revelations come to light. The dialogue is good and the character conflict well-handled. This is not The Descent, I’ll give you that, but it’s a lot, lot better than The Blair Shit Project, for example.

Writer-director Jared Cohn plays a surprisingly well-spoken (and beard-free) bum whom they find reading a Lonesome Dove paperback by candle-light. An intriguingly ambiguous character, it’s really not clear how trustworthy he is – which is good.

About halfway through we get our first glimpse of a lizard person, or at least a lizard person’s arm. From then on the tension and horror gradually increases and we get more glimpses of the lizard people, who are effectively portrayed and photographed. They’re not reptilian monsters, more bums with dark green-brown, scaly skin, scary teeth and contacts, and animalistic tendencies. You know what, I think that, given the micro-budget, they actually work. Any more ambitious make-up would end up looking rubbish, but this has been judged just right.

Some parts of the film are seen through the lens of Jack’s camera, complete with little red ‘rec’ light, but this is far from being ‘found footage’. The whole thing is topped and tailed with some very effective talking heads of assorted witnesses and experts, including a former CIA guy shot in silhouette.

I enjoyed ULP which I picked pretty much at random off YouTube when I had some time to spare. Having watched the movie, I trotted over to IMDB to see if anyone involved had made anything else, and discovered that Jared Cohn has quite a CV, even though this was only made three years ago. ULP was actually his second feature after something called The Carpenter Part 1 – And So They Die. These two movies were enough to get him a gig with The Asylum, purveyors of finest DTV rubbish since 1997. For those guys he directed horrors Born Bad, Hold Your Breath and 12/12/12 (he also acted in the sequel 13/13/13!). Cohn helmed skinfick-comedy Bikini Spring Break for The Asylum as well as prison drama 17 and Life: Jailbait and even giant mecha-fest mockbuster Atlantic Rim (take that, Guillermo del Toro!). As an actor, you’ll find him in Alien Abduction, Bram Stoker’s Way of the Vampire, Legion of the Dead, Halloween Night, Blood Predator and a number of other pre-Lizard People titles. The IMDB reckons he’s attached to direct Zombienado!

Ed Erdelac, writer-director of horror western Meaner than Hell, shares script credit, from a story by exec-prod/co-prod Ron Dubey. Among the cast, all of whom acquit themselves well here, Gold has about two dozen credits including ‘pregnant zombie’ in something called Eat Me; Byrne went on to handle camera on Larry King Now; Klemp was in a short Twilight spoof; Walker seems to have mainly done stage work; and Hammond has done a couple of shorts.

Mike Bauman (Revenants) was the DP and does a good job of convincing us that this all happens underground, although realistically there was always going to be too much light, otherwise we would never see what was happening. The make-up was by Ingrid Okola whose credits include Devil’s Detail, The Blood Shed, David Gregory’s Plague Town, I Sell the Dead, ZombleBees(!), and Debbie Rochon’s Model Hunger.

Underground Lizard People turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a cheap and cheerful student film by a bunch of nobodies and found instead an enjoyable horror picture from the guy who made Atlantic Rim. A lucky dip indeed.

MJS rating: B+

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