Vsevolod Plotkin: The Elevator (Lift, 2006)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2007

Being stuck in an elevator is a pervasive modern cause of high anxiety. Terrorism, claustrophobia, open-ended waiting, the stench of others, fear of plummeting to a horrible death are all part of elevator phobia. We may fear external forces, but the greatest threat comes from within the cage. Vsevolod Plotkin's second feature film, The Elevator, combines all of these anxieties in what the marketing blurb describes as Russia's first “psycho-mystical thriller” and “a Hitchcockian psychological horror.” This is quite a claim. Plotkin's elevator becomes a symbolic purgatory where ordinary people reveal their deepest secrets and seek absolution but find no salvation—only a pathetic eros and thanatos . It is a thriller, of sorts, but it is the spirito-mystical elements that modify the genre and make this a curiously engaging film.

Cinematic elevator disasters promise heightened dramatic situations as passengers panic, claustrophobia mounts, and the cables begin to slip. It is no wonder that it has been a dramatic mainstay of one-set, small cast, low budget short films the world over. There are a number of recent feature examples—from disaster movies such as Dick Maas' Shaft (2001) to observational documentaries and even domestic comedies of manners (Mikhail Kokshenov's The Lift Leaves on Time ( Lift ukhodit po raspisaniiu, 1999 ). However, Plotkin's film appears to be more indebted to Andrei Tarkovskii's Solaris (1972) and Vincenzo Natali's two potent explorations of the confined: the 17-minute short Elevated (1997) and the brilliant, existential puzzle of Cube (1997). There may be connections to grungy horror/thrillers such as Saw (dir. James Wan, 2004), but The Elevator is not that scary as plot and philosophical ruminations dominate the thrills.

One morning in a new Moscow high-rise apartment five seemingly ordinary characters ascend in a gleaming silver elevator. Without noticing one another they disperse over different floors. A short time later, due to a variety of critical circumstances, they re-enter the lift, this time going down. The young man (Sergei Gorobchenko) now slumps to the floor, blood smeared across his forehead; the well-dressed woman (Ol'ga Rodionova ) appears to be heading to work, but is trying to compose herself after a major shock; a finely coiffured man (Igor' Vernik) carrying a violin case exudes an air of calm conceit; a young athlete (Natal'ia Rychkova ) skips in on her way to a training session; and, finally, a nervous dishevelled man in a bathrobe (Daniil Spivakovskii) pushes the fast closing doors ajar. He is agitated and is carrying a large knife.

The athlete seems to recognise the dishevelled man from a police photo of a serial killer active in the area that she just saw on the television news. She grabs the violinist's case and knocks down the dishevelled man accusing him of being the serial killer. There is a commotion. Suspicions are voiced. Perhaps she has made a mistake. Then, just as things have settled, everyone realises that the elevator went past the ground floor. The five passengers are locked inside and slowly become gripped by panic. They all have good reasons for needing to get out fast. But there is no escape, the buttons don't work and no calls can be made to the outside. The elevator continues to plunge down a throbbing shaft. The serial killer accusations recede to the background as the five passengers try to figure out what is going on. Tempers flare and anxieties spiral. All vestiges of the ordinary disappear as we plunge into a mystical exploration.

It becomes clear that the elevator will keep descending until the chance passengers begin to divine what unites them and what needs to happen for the elevator finally to stop and for the doors to open. They theorise that such deep elevator shafts do not exist. One argues that they are sliding down a secret military shaft, another that they have been gassed and that they are now hallucinating. Perhaps they have already died and are on their way to the afterlife, but why is their cage going downwards? They must be on their way to hell. This seems to be the most appropriate explanation as all five reveal shameful secrets from the recent past. As the film's poster proclaims, “fear reveals the truth,” and it is by confronting the past that they have some chance of salvation.

The elevator community is the exposition of a Sartrean universe where “hell is other people,” and it is here that the film is at its most compelling. The characters argue, fight, sulk, pontificate, and philosophise. They try to determine who is to blame and how to survive as they tear into one another. It is hard to think of this film as just a thriller and not as symbolic of Russian national cinema. Harder still is to dispel the idea that the elevator is somehow emblematic of post-Soviet claustrophobia, guilt, and survival mania. The no-exit existentialism portrays the struggle of five people whose “sins” each tell us something about the world in which they were committed.

Each character has a reveal with cutaways providing the backstory. The athlete turns out to be a drug addict; the well-dressed woman, a doctor who has just killed her adulterous husband; the dishevelled man is a petty pervert with an archangel fantasy; the young man physically attacked his father; and the violinist, jaded by performing for years, moonlights as a house thief with a very unusual explanation: it is only through breaking into houses that he can once again experience the intensity of really listening. Only one of these characters will make it alive to the elevator's final destination. The audience is cast into the role of detective, trying to figure out what is special about the trapped characters, why they are there, what unites them, and how their relationships will determine who will survive? Guilt is freely confessed, but the shimmering silver cage does not necessarily reward those seeking benediction.

The characters' descent into madness, preceded by a kind of religious ecstasy of self-realisation, is a highlight of the film. But there is non-productive tension between the external supernatural forces that trap them in the elevator and the pathological danger that comes from within their trapped community. Mixing spiritual concerns with the thriller genre's demands for a serial killer weakens the film as it undermines the audience's thrill of the arcane.

The Elevator is a cramped ensemble film where all five characters are virtually always in shot. This places a high demand on the director's ability to coax nuance and variety from his cast. Unfortunately, this film is let down by a combination of heavy-handed directing, a poorly justified omniscient point of view of the plunging elevator, an uneven cast, and a tendency to set the action at the same hysterical pitch. Daniil Spivakovskii as the dishevelled man with the knife plays the most complex role as the suspected serial killer and narrative catalyst. Guilty of histrionics, he also produces some powerful moments of mystical transfiguration in an intense acting display. Ol'ga Rodionova, in the key role of the well-dressed doctor, usually plays at being glamorous and sexy. She does this reasonably well, but appears unconvincing and forced in simpler moments. In contrast, Igor' Vernik, as the man with the violin, is at the menacing core of the film, creating a convincing, complex sociopath.

Shot on 35mm, the film has a distinctly modern “mystical” look (a kind of agitated Solaris ) that makes the most of its low budget roots. But the postproduction effects and extensive color grading that could have been achieved as efficiently using HD video are perhaps too obvious. The surrealistic aesthetic of cinematographer Radik Askarov is overstated. It parallels the narrative too closely, so that when things turn weird—so does the film's texture. Key dramatic moments are telegraphed, save for the sex scene amidst the bleeding corpses that takes the film into a very strange realm. The sound design was a missed opportunity: although set for 5.1 Dolby surround, there was little spatial positioning or play with audience emotions and expectations. There were insufficient moments of stillness to allow for lyrical lulls in the action to make the moments of horror less predictable and the revelations more surprising.

Scriptwriter Roman Doronin claims to have written this—his first script—as a response to the terrorist attack on the Moscow metro in 2004 in order to explore the feeling of helplessness and fear. The premise is adequate but the “modern” serial killer theme does not invigorate the cinematic thrills in the script, which requires considerable dialog editing. The film's strength is not the promotion of a new indigenised thriller/horror genre, but the psychological and mystical examination of a Sartrean purgatory that plays with audience expectations.

Stills courtesy of producer's press kit

Greg Dolgopolov
University of New South Wales, Australia

The Elevator, Russia, 2006
Color, 88 mins
Director: Vsevolod Plotkin
Screenplay: Roman Doronin
Cinematography: Radik Askarov
Sound: Georgii Masiukovi, Roman Savin, Aleksandr Kol'tsov
Cast: Igor' Vernik, Ol'ga Rodionova, Daniil Spivakovskii, Sergei Gorobchenko, Natal'ia Rychkova, Georgii Martirosian, Oleg Marusev, Ekaterina Zinchenko
Producer: Mikhail Rozentsveig
Production: Nuazh Film Company
Official Russian web site

Vsevolod Plotkin: The Elevator (Lift, 2006)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2007

Updated: 23 Mar 07