In an age of automated terrors, where billionaires seem intent on having ‘artificial intelligence’ take control of massive chunks of metal on the roads, however lethal an idea that has proven to be, Dick Maas’ film about an elevator that becomes conscious, and starts killing people seems weirdly prescient. 40 years on from its first release, it is worth re-evaluating, both as a piece of satire, and as a glorious piece of B-movie schlock.
Moving somewhere new usually comes with a bucket of new discoveries; some more pleasant than others. Beyond the obvious things I have enjoyed since arriving in Amsterdam – fresh, market stroopwafels; free-to-use Cruijff football courts; and bruin cafés festooned with Laurel and Hardy paraphernalia all included – my favourite thing to have stumbled upon is the filmography of Dick Maas.
Since the early 80s, Maas’ uncompromising brand of B-movie magic has been making Nederlanders intensely uncomfortable, from his crass class exploitation comedy Flodder to his unflinchingly gory take on the nation’s outdated – to put it very kindly – Sinterklaas myth. From my experience, the Dutch are a little embarrassed by his work, partially because they don’t paint a particularly flattering picture of life in the lowlands, but also because they don’t stack up to more polished US productions.
Honestly though, I think those people are missing out. As far as I can see, each of his films shows a filmmaker aware of his own budgetary limitations – as well as the absurdity of many of his films’ subjects – but determined to make the best of things. While a four-decade career in which bigger productions largely eluded him clearly ground that down over the years, each of his films still manages to both take itself seriously, and inject a vicious streak of black humour into proceedings.
I recently saw De Lift – his first feature, from 1983 – and what I chiefly took away from the experience was that if he had been born in another time and place, things might have worked out very differently for Maas. Sharply edited, with endless double-bluffs and call-backs, it makes the most of a truly ridiculous ‘threat’, and makes a film that is (intentionally and otherwise) darkly comedic, while still managing to be relatively tense. Everything that follows is a potential spoiler, so if you mean to see this for yourself first, please return to this article later.
As later attempts such as Devil (with a budget of many millions more) would find out, making a possessed elevator the main threat of your story is not the greatest choice. It’s a threat which, once identified, can be easily avoided – either by avoiding the building the lift is sealed within, or by simply taking the stairs instead. Such a contained ‘menace’ is not exactly going to have you checking over your shoulder while using the bathroom late at night, or wondering if it might have winched itself to your window when you hear a branch knocking on the glass in the storm. What needs to happen in this case, is to find a compelling reason for your lead character to have to revisit the scene against his better-judgement.
In the case of De Lift, our protagonist Felix Adelaar (long-time Maas collaborator Huub Stapel) finds himself unable to resist returning to Amstelveen – which if you’ve ever been there, is a pretty funny idea in its own right – as he develops an unhealthy obsession with the lift. After the elevator attempts to suffocate four passengers, Adelaar is called in to examine an electrical fault which he determines is not present. When a nightwatchman is decapitated in the film’s most fantastically drawn-out mortality, he still cannot detect any malfunction – and even as his boss angrily tells him to drop it, Adelaar simply can’t let this go. After the badge and gun scene you might expect to find in a hardboiled cop drama, he defies being placed on gardening leave, to continue his investigation.
If all this sounds silly, that’s because it is – but on the balance of things I think it’s supposed to be. Maas is taking staple tropes from other genre cinema, and deploying them to amusing effect here. Other winks to the audience include an escalating joke that as he spends so long fixating on lift-shafts, Adelaar’s wife Saskia (Josine van Dalsum) begins to think he is having an affair. The thing is, such is his obsession, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with convincing her otherwise. After a half-hearted attempt to convince her of what was actually going on – he is investigating an elevator that has somehow become conscious, and wants to kill people – he seems to consign himself to it just being too stupid to get into, and saving his energy for his work instead.
There are some missed opportunities to really play up to this, in preference of keeping to a tight 95-minute run-time. Even if Felix were to convince Saskia of his faithfulness, is neglecting her and their children really more acceptable because he is doing it to spend time with a haunted or automated lift? A confrontation around that would have given both actors more to get their teeth into, and helped flesh out a relationship that is clearly going south anyway.
At the same time, there are some apparent set-ups which simply never have payoffs. The bungling detective who writes off the murderous elevator as ‘rats chewing on wires’ in order to have an easy day’s work is among a number of characters who a less rushed narrative would have found time to be dispatched. There is also a real estate agent who mis-sells land to a blind man – the victim of this fraud is the only one who ends up tumbling down the lift’s shaft – and an overbearing boss who berates his cleaner for daring to dance while buffing the floor, who also escapes the kind of ‘justice’ this kind of schlocky horror film usually delights in giving us.
At the same time, the reasons why any of this is happening might seem stupid or underbaked. It turns out there is no Satanic force at play here. In fact, the lift is an early experiment with artificial intelligence – and however many people it kills, there is a bizarre and unquestioning belief among its company, who are well aware of the risks, that it must not be dismantled now. That’s virtually all you get, and some people – then and now – might think that’s not enough to go on. But I think that brand of underbaked explanation actually holds up rather well in a world where – however many people autonomous cars as mow down – self-driving vehicles are continuously touted as the future by the likes of Tesla, and its government sugar-daddies, all to sate some vague notion of innovation.
This may be why critics outside of the Netherlands were so quick to write off De Lift as under-developed nonsense. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, for example, said it was “tepid”, and while “in the hands of the right film maker… even a toaster can be terrifying”, “the elevator’s potential fiendishness largely unexploited”. Meanwhile, a TimeOut listing of the film suggests “confusions of script and execution, neither of which match up to the original good idea.”
Both of these assertions are somewhat undermined by the assertion that horror films about inanimate objects are not, on some level, deeply silly. A scary movie about a killer elevator was never an “original good idea”, and nobody besides the coke-addled 80s incarnation of Stephen King would have probably seen it as one. But it is a good idea if used as a platform to tweak the nose of other norms of genre storytelling we take for granted. That makes for a fun, albeit messy, B-movie that also works to showcase a sharp eye for visual gags and creative cutting.
Brilliant deadpan moments flesh out the plot, if you can catch them. Among them are indicators the Adelaars’ marriage was disintegrating long before that pesky elevator came into the picture. Saskia essentially issues a cry for help by telling her husband she is saving wine bottle lids; in the hope they could win them a holiday to Hawaii. His shrugging response is that they just went to Texel – a windswept island in the icy Wadden Sea. Because what more could she want?
Elsewhere, a toy ambulance blares onto screen seconds after the lift’s first victims are discovered. It is a toy which Adelaar fixes for his son, utilising his electronic expertise to breathe new life into it. But when his family leaves, it is the first recipient of his frustration – smashed to pieces, as an indicator of the life he has given up for his truly bizarre obsession. And Maas even manages to work in a call back to the film’s final ‘showdown’, referencing the earlier lazy detective by deploying a dead rat as a jump-scare to torment Adelaar as he hangs from the wires of the lift.
Is the film perfect? No. Are Maas’ efforts without reproach? Of course not. But with all this in mind, his techniques in De Lift brought to my mind the filmmaking which Edgar Wright is now lauded for. The biggest differences for him may be that his career commenced in a market where English was not the primary language – making that leap to larger projects with US/UK financial backing that bit more difficult. At the same time, he didn’t have a collaborator like Simon Pegg to help punch up his dialogue.
In that case, sneering at his work, instead of enjoying it for what it is – a distinct, knowing brand of B-movie satire – seems to be the indulgence which I have come to most dislike among other critics: the desire to prove you are smarter than what is put in front of you. But if you’re really determined to show you are more intelligent than a film about a killer winch-system, how smart can you really be?