“Down,” the Valentine’s Day horror story from Into the Dark, is a classic “trapped in an elevator” tale done very, very well—with a few more clever and grounded turns of script than something like the M. Night Shyamalan-penned Devil.
A couple of corporate building-mates, Jennifer (Natalie Martinez) and Guy (Matt Lauria), get stuck in an elevator after a long day’s work, and since they’re the last ones in an office heading into an extended Valentine’s Day/President’s Day weekend, they’re really stuck. But being stuck with them is surprisingly enjoyable. In a bottled-up format that can be punishing, driving writers to create more and more baffling scenarios to maintain the claustrophobia, “Down” is confident enough to savor its time.
Still, Kent Kubena’s clever script wastes no time giving his charming leads character-defining business, which Martinez and Lauria handle deftly; their performances make it seem like their characters naturally default to rigidity and looseness, respectively. Their initial flirtation, interspersed lightly over their crappy situation, is slow enough and sweet enough to be believable—and to compel even jaded horror fans to root for these two damned heroes.
Director Daniel Stamm maintains the snappiness with his quick cuts and single-actor framing in this meet-cute-gone-wrong scenario. The pair of workaholics bond despite their dire situation (80 hours with only wine and Hershey’s kisses for rations is a survival situation that’d make Bear Grylls balk), and share plenty of endearing moments. There’s some intense, sweaty sexiness thrown in there, too: Stamm isn’t afraid to get you a little riled before reminding you that you’re just as screwed up as whoever might be watching through the elevator security camera. Then things—of course—start to get a little weird.
The romance fades—not super surprising, considering their fling was founded on half a bottle of wine and an ounce and a half of chocolate—but there’s more to it than that. The two aren’t necessarily who they seem, as their white work shirts ruffle and the pristine fluorescent lighting giving them the backlit halos slowly fades. “Down” becomes an interrogation of consent, manipulation, and assault, looking at dating culture as a one-night stand nightmare where you’re both Cask of Amontillado’d the morning after.
There are some very traditional tropes brought out in terms of the villainy at work here, but Lauria and Martinez go beyond what their roles usually ask. With light sprinklings of brutality mixed in with as much discretion as the sexiness, the pair pivot their characters beautifully after a twisty middle. The takes get longer (though Stamm still maintains a rapid pace of cutting) and the camerawork more inventive as the plot deliciously diverts from its initial approach. Sound design that combines the competing tones of metal-on-metal scraping and an elevator’s friendly ding unsteadies nerves that were never quite still to begin with; every sense is disturbed in the best way. The cruelty is ramped up so high after the sweet beginnings that you can’t help but feel betrayed—and it’s perfect, because only equitable levels of evil could cause us to root for revenge after such a charming start.
The seemingly simple set-up becomes a winding dance in which the shifting balance of power between the genres is just as important as the elegance of their stride. Without giving too much away, there’s a premium display of toxicity that’s all too familiar and related to the holiday. Navigating it, with all its pathetic need, facile charm, and underlying rage, is the story’s strongest suit. Explaining the twist—in excruciating detail—is both an unnecessary rehash and a vindictive reiteration: With this kind of behavior, acknowledgement is a too-rare luxury.
By using the twist to modulate the story rather than pull the rug out from underneath it, “Down” lets the audience in on the game instead of playing without us. The result is a careful consideration of manipulation—of people, of genre—that doesn’t manipulate the viewer as part of its method. Even despite a coda that goes on and on, it’s still a raw and schlocky piece of pulp. With pure storytelling, tight scripting, and two downright stellar performances, “Down” is the best time Into the Dark’s offered yet.
Into the Dark’s “Down” is now streaming on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.