[Fantastic Fest 2022 Review] 'Deep Fear' is a Claustrophobic Descent into the Terrors Which Lurk Beneath Society
The unsettling truth about society is that no matter how deep we bury the past, it remains there, squirming beneath our feet…
…Having just played at Fantastic Fest, director Gregory Beghin’s sophomore feature, Deep Fear, plunges viewers into the dark bowels of a history which refuses to stay dead.
Set in 1991, writer Nicolas Tackian’s script introduces us to a trio of best friends celebrating Henry’s (Victor Meutelet) last weekend as a free man before he ships off to the military. Sonia (Sofia Lesaffre) wants to make it special, so she decides to have them tag along with new boy toy, Ramy (Joseph Olivennes) on a descent into the Paris Catacombs. After a run-in with a group of skinheads, the friends find themselves lost in the labyrinthine maze, only to discover that there are worse things lurking down there than Nazi punks.
An underground cemetery created in the eighteenth century due to public health concerns, the catacombs are more than a graveyard which has gripped the curiosity of so many of us; They’re a symbolic tomb for the way in which we attempt to bury dangers and pretend they don’t exist. If the last few years have reaffirmed anything, it’s that the ugliness of human nature never stays buried for long.
From the opening scene which sees a young man attacked by something in the dank tunnels of the Catacombs to the human threats which hunt our protagonists, Beghin’s film scratches at the surface of those deep-seeded fears which follow us wherever we go. Sonia is a minority woman living in a space that is pre-dominantly white. Merely spotting skinheads at a bar early on has her experiencing nightmares of them before the all too real encounter below. She lives in a society which likes to act like the danger of those swastika-wearing dipshits doesn’t exist, but it does. Seeing Nazi flags flying at the United States capitol on January 6th was a horrifying reminder of that. For Sonia and so many of us, the prevalence of such an ideology creates a claustrophobic sensation which can make it feel as difficult to breathe as the tight quarters of the Catacombs themselves. A response which Deep Fear thrives on.
While Deep Fear never reaches the frightening highs of other Catacombs horror such as As Above, So Below—and let’s be fair, that’s a tall order—Beghin establishes a consistent dread which permeates throughout. Much of the film is shot in near-pitch dark, lit only by a sickly yellow tone that heightens the discomfort of the decrepit setting. Emanating from every orifice of the watchful blackness is a grumbling sound design that gets the job done in inspiring images of impossible horrors hiding in the shadows. The grimy atmosphere is so thick you can practically feel it crawling into your lungs.
The film is like a vice closing in around your throat. Deep Fear will have those of you who don’t do well with constricting spaces squirming in your seats. Again and again, characters find themselves going through passageways in which they must wriggle like worms while everything shakes around them due to the overhead railways. That’s a big hell no from this claustrophobe. At a certain point you have to wonder what the hell is wrong with these people, Beghin leans so hard into that classic horror trope of characters who make dumb decisions for the sake of plot. As likeable as the cast is, there’s not one I’d trust with something as simple as ordering delivery, more or less getting me through the Paris Catacombs.
Despite Yvan Coene’s suffocating cinematography and a prickling atmosphere, Deep Fear has a difficult time maintaining the fear factor. Part of the problem is that the film sets up an intriguing, old-school monster movie with the opening scene and then doesn’t deliver on that promise until it’s too little too late. The audience can only go along for the ride for so long before repetitive crawling sequences and slow pans through the dark aren’t enough to keep the heart rate up. The third act also transforms the film from a tense exploration into a schlocky, silly endeavor that’s good fun but a tone switch that doesn’t quite hold up. Some of you might appreciate that Tackian’s script offers up goofy horrors with little to no explanation, while others will sit there scratching their heads and wishing for at least some meat on the bone of this story. We are at least gifted with some eye-popping gore which involves actual meat hanging off of bones, so there’s that.
A labyrinthine descent featuring slasher elements combined with a smothering setting, the horror of Deep Fear lies less in what’s on screen and more in what the film implies. No matter how hard some of us try to forget. No matter how deep we bury them. Hateful ideologies such as Nazism persist beneath us, yet so much of society continues to ignore it. Beghin’s film drags its feet. It frustrates the viewer. It loses its effectiveness at times. But I can’t argue that it has a lasting influence. Buried within an entertaining enough horror film is a chilling message which is screaming to be heard, to be listened to, before it’s too late.
We can’t pretend that the horrors of the past will stay buried forever. They’re still down there. Deep Fear strikes at the chord of those societal fears that haunt those of us who stopped ignoring them a long time ago.
By Matt Konopka