What if you were up really high? Like, so high. Like, really, really, really high? And you couldn’t get down. Wouldn’t that just be, like, sooooooooo insane!? In essence, that is the plot to Scott Mann’s Fall, an exhilarating horror/thriller about two adventure-seekers trapped at the tip of a 2,000-foot decommissioned TV tower. And, well, it’s kind of fantastic. Mann, whose previous credits include a small handful of lower-budget, direct-to-video action flicks, makes a potentially overly simplistic and drawn-out concept flourish as a precise stomach-churner that will have you literally gripping onto the ground beneath your feet for dear life. Not grand enough in any sense—director, stars, budget, etc.—to function as a true summer blockbuster, Fall still struck me as sweet relief from an otherwise barren August.
Coincidentally, Fall slides right in line with another recent high concept horror/thriller: Beast. Starring Idris Elba, Beast follows widowed father Dr. Nate Daniels (Elba), who takes his two young daughters to South Africa, the place where he first met his recently deceased wife, in order to repair the trio’s fractured relationship. On the game reserve overseen by the family’s old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), they become the unwitting prey of a bloodthirsty lion that will stop at nothing to kill any human who crosses his path. Beast and Fall share a handful of similarities.
Both narratives are propelled by loss in the characters’ lives and an attempt to repair damaged relationships—and they’re mostly laughable and inconsequential. The stories are purely serviceable, moving you along from one terrifying set piece to the next. Both films are survival stories of man vs. nature with scant plots, forcing the cinematography, editing and camerawork to do the heavy lifting. Smaller-scale genre thrillers relying heavily on technique. The invigorating thrillers function (unlike, perhaps, some other films of note) like real cinematic theme park rides by prioritizing the craft of their spectacle above all else.
In Beast the frequent long takes—while occasionally unnecessary—amplify the terror of particular setpieces. The absence of cuts keeps sequences moving, and creates tension by making the audience feel as unsafe, vulnerable and restricted in perspective as the characters. Without the release of a cut, we feel trapped in the safari Jeep alongside Nate, Martin and the kids when the lion first attacks them. Coupled with the film’s immersive sound design and shaky cam, CG lion attacks feel as if they convulse the entire theater.
Fall, on the other hand, benefits heavily from the use of practical effects. Though some movie magic was obviously necessary, the actors really were on top of a tower in the middle of a desert as opposed to a sound stage in front of a green screen. To be precise, actors Virginia Gardner and Grace Caroline Currey were on a 100-foot tower constructed by the film’s crew, and that tower was built on a 2,000-foot mountaintop. So, when we see Hunter (Gardner) and Becky (Currey) dangling horrifically off the “pizza-sized” platform at the top of the tower, that’s really the actors hanging off the side of a tower. The realistic filmmaking greatly enhances how petrifying Fall is to watch, but the film also benefits from being effective on premise alone. Fear of heights is one of the most commonly held phobias, and all it takes is Hunter dangling precariously on a thin 50-foot rope, or Becky shimmying bare-handed up the tower’s ladderless 30-foot tip to get us gasping and squirming in our seats.
Still, as with Beast, perspective is key in Fall. If the characters look down, we look down too and see the unforgiving depths below. Sparse drone shots remind us just how high up and how imperiled our heroes are. Quick successive cuts articulate impending disaster in a way that conveys the sensation of a Rube Goldberg machine, giving us little time to breathe or comprehend what’s about to happen. Like Beast, the editing choices make us feel as endangered as the characters. Aside from a couple brief moments of failed rescue, there are no other characters or situations to cut to in order to relieve us from being trapped on this tower with Becky and Hunter; in Beast, we’re either stuck with Nate and his children, or with an injured Martin in the lion’s lair. In both Beast and Fall, that restricted perspective allows for a more fruitful sensation of entrapment in two films (mostly) grounded in reality but set in exciting, terrifying terrain: The South African wilderness and, well, being very, very high up. Because the situations are plausible enough, but there’s less to tap into character-wise, you’re left identifying with and wondering what you would do to survive them.
The high concept film isn’t anything new, of course. Since Steven Spielberg plagued theater audiences with dismembered legs in the mouths of great whites (though, obviously a film with a bit more substance to it than the two focused on here), the bare bones high concept film is a tried and true genre workhorse that prioritizes the experience that can be gleaned from a dependence on craftsmanship. Perhaps part of why Fall and Beast feel so fresh right now is because so many modern blockbusters are entirely bogged down by story. Not necessarily good stories or characters, but overstuffed worldbuilding, IP and sequel tie-ins. How refreshing, then, to watch movies where the threat is not some all-powerful intergalactic villain or a series of half-assed antagonists aboard a high-speed Japanese train—or, in the case of horror-thrillers, an overwrought metaphor that overpowers the possibilities that can come from simple, effective filmmaking. Sometimes, the best blockbusters can be people up too high or a guy fighting an animal with his bare hands. We used to be a proper country, and perhaps we can become one again.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.