Urban Explorer: Film Review

Clever horror premise squandered by predictable execution.

A rumored Nazi bunker is the destination for a group of urban spelunkers in Berlin.

Urban exploration -- aka urban spelunking or infiltration -- is a frequently illegal pastime that’s caught on worldwide, particularly in decaying urban centers or at abandoned industrial or military facilities. The activity combines the adventure of climbing or caving with the risks of investigating dilapidated, unstable structures and all the hazards they may contain.

Indie suspenser Urban Explorer is set in Berlin, which sits atop an underground network of 25,000 tunnels six levels deep dating back to the Third Reich and the Cold War periods that draws explorers from all over the world. Converging on the city seeking illicit thrills, French tourist Marie (Catherine de Léan), Korean backpacker Juna (Brenda Koo) and expat couple Lucia (Nathalie Kelley) and Denis (Nick Eversman), meet up with Kris (Max Riemelt), their paid local guide to “the dark side of Berlin.”

Their target is a rumored Nazi bunker adorned with Aryan imagery that authorities have supposedly sealed from the prying of contemporary fascists. The group’s initial passage through a series of debris-strewn tunnels of varying dimensions and decrepitude is fairly uneventful, aside from a run-in with some very nasty, violent thugs who may or may not be Neo-Nazis, sending a distinct frisson through the group.

Arriving at the walled-off chamber after some mildly exciting subterranean escapades, they break in and marvel at the murals depicting a Nazi paramilitary paradise of sleek, expressionless men, women and children. Their mission accomplished, the group begins the return trip, but an accident on a tricky tunnel crossing leaves Kris badly injured and in need of emergency medical care. Marie and Juna set off to find help on the surface while Lucia and Denis remain with their unconscious guide.

Assistance arrives sooner than expected with the appearance of Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier), a hulking human castoff who calls the tunnels home. Speaking only German, which Denis can grasp at a basic level but Lucia doesn’t understand at all, he helps them evacuate Kris back to his network of bunkers. Once there, the American couple gradually grasps that they may have been safer remaining in the tunnels awaiting rescue than in the clutches of the unstable Armin.   

Starting off with an intriguing concept and the unique underground Berlin setting, screenwriter Martin Thau and director Andy Fetscher (who also shoots and edits) rapidly squander their advantage with a prosaic visual style, weak characterizations and predictable plotting. Once mayhem ensues, there’s little remaining investment in the characters’ survival.

Performances are strictly generic or else totally over the top in the case of Stiglmeier, whose outlandish appearance and extreme behavior scream psycho to the core. Sinister sound effects and a generous gore factor provide a degree of genre-specific authenticity. Screening reviewed was compromised by an absence of German-language subtitles throughout the dialogue involving Stiglmeier’s character, although he’s so much of a type that interpretation hardly seems necessary.

Venue: Screamfest
Production companies: Papermoon Films, Rialto Film
Cast: Nathalie Kelley, Nick Eversman, Klaus Stiglmeier, Brenda Koo, Catherine de Léan
Director: Andy Fetscher
Screenwriter: Martin Thau
Producer: Oliver Thau
Executive producers: Martin Hellstern, Felix Wendlandt
Director of photography: Andy Fetscher
Music: Robert Henke, Steven Schwalbe    
Production designer: Nobel Nobielski         
Editor: Andy Fetscher
No Rating, 88 minutes