Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think any of us are ever going to watch body-horror films revolving around disease the same way again…
…The pandemic has forced us to view these types of films through an all too knowing lens, with an understanding not just of the horror of disease, but a fear as well of the ignorance of the human race when faced with murder-y microbes. Enter writer/director Arseny Syuhin’s debut feature Superdeep, which I already have in the running as one of the most disturbing horror films of 2021.
Set in 1980s Soviet Russia, Superdeep follows Anya (Milena Radulovic), an epidemiologist with a troubled past, who is hired to venture into an underground lab deep beneath the surface—we’re talking around 12,000 meters—with the mission of retrieving a sample of a contagion for further study after an incident results in loss of communication with the lab. With the lab just hours from being shut down completely, Anya and her team are on a time crunch, but once they arrive they discover that some horrors are better left buried.
I do not say this lightly when I say that Superdeep is an astounding achievement for first-time feature director Arseny Syuhin that already has me anticipating his next feature with barely containable glee. This film is, quite simply, stunning.
Superdeep opens on a nightmare sequence—one of many—from Anya’s POV as she tries desperately to save a patient during some sort of test trial. The scene is bloody, uncomfortable, and gives a good taste of the medical horror that is to come. “The ends justify the means,” Anya is told by her superior, and it’s this mindset that follows her all throughout. She is a grey character, played with a quiet strength by Radulovic, determined to achieve success, but troubled over the sacrifices that must be made. Superdeep poses that always interesting question of how much sacrifice is worth it if it means saving the human race, and in the end, are we even worth saving?
In a way, Superdeep is a descent into a heart of darkness in more ways than one for Anya, which makes her a fascinating character to tag along with.
As for the actual physical descent, Superdeep wows again and again on a visual level. The audience is taken through a wintery tundra—recalling Carpenter’s The Thing with a couple standout references—to ice tunnels and finally down an elevator into a well-constructed lab set that oozes all kinds of eerie atmosphere. Bioshock, Dead Space, The Thing…all of them deal with some kind of body horror, and all of them feel present in some way in the set design of Superdeep. Paired with breathtaking cinematography from Hayk Kirakosyan, I couldn’t believe Superdeep was Syuhin’s debut feature, it all looks that good.
Once Anya arrives in the lab, we meet a variety of characters such as researcher, Peter (Kirill Kovbas), engineer, Nikolay (Nikita Dyuvbanov), a doctor named Kira (Albina Chaykina), plus a group of soldiers meant to protect them (HA!). One issue with Superdeep is that, unlike Aliens—which the film feels at times reminiscent of—this assortment of characters is largely forgettable, and it can be easy to lose track of them as they continue to split off, often with vague reasoning. To the film’s credit though, survival can bring out the best—and worst—in people, and there are quite a few surprises from the cast as the film goes on.
I mentioned Dead Space and Bioshock, and the reason is, the first half of Superdeep feels like the spine-tingling setup for an action-packed, sci-fi horror videogame. Dmitry Selipanov’s confident and eerie score takes the cast through mysterious corridors marked with messages such as “Help us” and “Deliver us from evil”, all while the evidence of something worse than any disease becomes more apparent. But none of that is anything compared to the nerve-shredding horror that erupts after the midway point.
While I won’t spoil exactly what’s going on here, let’s just say that Superdeep introduces terrors that will remind some of anything from the body-molding horrors in The Thing to the fungal monstrosities in The Last of Us. At one point, Anya and crew are told “it’s Hell down there,” and man, if that isn’t one hundred percent accurate. It’s pure serendipity that Superdeep has ended up on Shudder, because Superdeep is shudder-inducing eco-horror at its most cringe-worthy. This movie will make you gasp, gag, and gargle on your screams with body-horror that I swear is some of the best creature effects you’ll see all year. The makeup effects in Superdeep are extraordinary and are guaranteed to get super deep under your skin. Coupled with squishy, unsettling sound design, you won’t forget the horror of Superdeep any time soon.
Oddly enough, that’s also part of Superdeep’s greatest flaw: it’s difficult not to feel as if the film has a ton of untapped potential.
Superdeep sets up its premise beautifully, but it never quite leans all the way into it. Instead of taking advantage of its soldier fodder, the film relegates almost all of the action to off-screen encounters, and keeps its monsters in the shadows. At two hours, the film starts to lose steam here and there, and can be frustrating in its stubbornness to settle for the horror of what we don’t know as opposed to what we do. Superdeep is never “boring”, but every time it’s about to pick up, it steps away from the adrenaline instead. At least, until the finale, which is a shocking nightmare that will satisfy the appetites of those in need of good creature feature madness.
Syuhin’s debut feature doesn’t quite reach its potential and too often walks when it should run, but altogether Superdeep is an impressive first feature and a hell of an accomplishment for the director. Mind-blowing creature effects—and yes, they’re mostly practical, by the way—an unsettling premise and an all-around quality production make this a must-see creature feature that will make your skin crawl…hopefully not literally.
Superdeep arrives on Shudder June 17th.
By Matt Konopka