The Lift & Amsterdamned – A Dick Maas Double Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
The Lift (1983)
There is something very wrong with the elevator in a stylish office high-rise. The passengers never end up on the floor of their choice. They end up dead! When Felix (Huub Stapel), an inquisitive repairman, investigates the faulty deathtrap, he discovers that something other than malfunctioning machinery is to blame. Some dark, distorted power has gained control of the elevator for its own evil design. After his horrifying discovery is given the shaft by the authorities, he joins a nosy female journalist named Mieke de Boer (Willeke van Ammelrooy) to battle the unholy force inside the lift. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Before he made the best slasher-action-cop-drama you’ve never seen, otherwise known as Amsterdamned (see below), Dutch writer/director Dick Maas brought his flashy, music video style to an inherently and knowingly silly haunted elevator movie called The Lift (Dutch: De Lift). Both films are prime Maas material, blending ridiculous concepts, bald-faced exploitation tactics, expressionistic visuals, and great performances into an incredibly likable mixed-genre affair. His stylish photography manages to make even the beigest corner offices and stodgiest bowling alleys appear dynamic and was born out of the early MTV music video directing generation (his most famous work in the field was a somewhat controversial video for Golden Earring's “Twilight Zone,” 1982). He is often overlooked for other music-video-directors-turned-horror-filmmakers, like Russell Mulcahy, Steve Barron, and Mary Lambert, mostly because made movies for the Dutch market.
The Lift comes loaded with Maas’ special brands of bawdy and self-aware goofiness. His tongue rarely leaves his cheek during any of the horror/suspense sequences. With a few exceptions, the victims are googly-eyed, goofball caricatures and the elevator murders are played for laughs. The heartiest giggles come by way of sight gags – like a blind man stepping into an open shaft and a hard cut to a detective using a cigar guillotine just after a security guard is beheaded – or straight-faced characters exchanging dry wit in the face of insanity. In addition to its self-contained comedy, The Lift is also a often clever satire of evil robot movies (the elevator itself is a not very mobile version of the Terminator), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and, most clearly, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Had it been merely an attractively-shot and genuinely amusing spoof, The Lift could be remembered as a nominal success, but it transcends those expectations, because Maas puts so much care into his characters. Given the relative lack of bloodshed, Felix’s admittedly cliché-driven home life and giallo-like amateur detective work (his scenes with feisty journalist Mieko are straight out of a Dario Argento movie) could’ve been filler or an awkward exposition dump; instead, they’re brimming with personality and a unique sense of melancholy that anchors all the wild shit going down.
For years, I assumed that the 2001 stateside straight-to-DVD film Down (under the alternate title The Shaft) was an American-made rip-off of The Lift, which struck me as funny, considering that The Lift was already known as a pseudo-rip-off of Jaws. Little did I know that Dick Maas himself had rewrote & redirected his own movie with a reasonably impressive budget and near A-list cast. On an entirely technical level, Down is an upgrade, if not an objective improvement over its shoe-string forebearer. The production design is top-notch and Maas has some impressive cinematic tricks up his sleeve, such as long steady-cam movements and crane shots. Comedy and satire are also still central to the formula and the over-the-top killer elevator set-pieces ante is notably upped (the body count is much higher). Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the complements end, especially for anyone unfortunate enough to watch the two movies in direct succession. Everything else about Down feels like a mediocre attempt at ‘mainstreaming’ a cult-friendly property. The stories are effectively identical, but Maas has overdrawn the simple concept with more plot, additional characters, and other unnecessary contrivances. The dialogue is awkward and rhythmically flawed, despite the capable cast’s finest efforts (not surprisingly, Ron Perlman and Edward Herrmann are the two actors who can make the dialogue work). This is probably because English being Maas’ second language and is a further example of his Dutch instincts not gelling with the stereotypical New York vibe he’s going for. All in all, Down is more valuable as a vestigial curiosity for The Lift fans than it is an entertaining standalone experience.
Down in the murky depths of Amsterdam's famous canals lurks a murderous predator. Surfacing at night, he kills at random and disappears without a trace. As the bodies begin to pile up and mass hysteria envelopes the city, Detective Eric Visser is assigned to head the investigation. With only the escalating number of victims to go on, Visser pursues his quarry with a vengeance, unaware that his beautiful new girlfriend may be the mysterious killer's next victim. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Please note that I wrote this review before the previous one. I’ve tried to edit out repetitive concepts.
It’s easy enough to refer to Dick Maas’ Amsterdamned as one of the best slasher movies you’ve never seen, because 1) you’ve probably never seen it and 2) it’s a pretty good slasher movie. What you might not believe is that it’s also one of the best neo-gialli, crime thrillers, and B-action movies you’ve never seen. Its general lack of availability outside of the Netherlands and undeniable exploitation appeal (as indicated by its deliciously silly title) have kept it off many a cult fan’s radar since its release, but, at the risk of overselling it, Amsterdamned is one of the most thoroughly entertaining ‘kitchen sink’ thrillers of the late ‘80s. In simple terms, it’s sort of like a serial killer-themed episode of Miami Vice – one that happens to be set in the Netherlands and is occasionally interrupted by scenes from a related, but tonally different family sitcom and R-rated violence. This mixed-genre method is designed to get butts in seats, but those butts likely remained glued, because Amsterdamned is a genuinely good movie. As expected from any worthwhile thriller, it’s technically well-made, despite its comparatively low budget, and features some very evocative (sometimes funny) suspense sequences. Its by-the-numbers narrative is also easy to keep ahead of, but narrative shortcomings are often nullified by compelling characters (the entire major cast has an easy-going, believable quality), an ironic sense of humour, and action scenes that exceed the expectations of most late-’80s/early ‘90s Hollywood films.
Maas clearly got a lot of of the neon & pastel MTV aesthetic out of his while system making The Lift. For this second movie, he streamlined his look, dialed back on the experimental photography, and ultimately does what he can to match mainstream Hollywood standards, fortunately in a more successful manner than he did with Down. In true Maas fashion, he also nabs images & ideas from other popular movies. This could’ve cheapened the proceedings, but actually helps to solidify the charm of its genre patchwork. This is especially true of the murder scenes, which are affectionately lifted whole cloth from a multitude of more famous movies, including John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and a handful of popular gialli, but, once again, the key influence seems to have been Jaws. Outside of this, he’s constantly moving the camera via track, steadicam, crane, or even helicopter; all of which gives the film loads of much-needed production value. Again, it is the action scenes – specifically the French Connection-worthy car vs. motorcycle chase and a wonderful, never-ending boat chase – that make Amsterdamned a must-see, even for folks that aren’t Euro-horror enthusiasts.
Video, Audio, and Extras:
The Lift enjoyed better international distribution than Amsterdamned or any of Maas’ comedies. In the US, the 1986 Media Home Entertainment VHS tape was easy enough to find in rental shops, assuming you were looking for it. However, the only DVD availability was a barebones, pan & scan disc from Warner in France and an anamorphic special edition disc from Dice DVD in Holland. It had been otherwise unavailable in North America until Blue Underground’s Blu-ray release. The BU disc was derived from a brand new 2K scan of the original negative and the HD restoration was supervised by Maas himself. The restoration is very similar to the company’s earlier Amsterdamned disc and that’s mostly a good thing. Both transfers are sharp and clean, almost like fresh out of the can new theatrical releases, which is especially impressive in the case of The Lift, because cinematographer Marc Felperlaan really pushed that smoky, diffused ‘80s look. Edges are tight and shapes are tidy without depleting the intended softness of some scenes. The hearty grain levels are also maintained and the transfer exhibits only minor telecine effects. On the more problematic side of the equation, colour timing skews yellow and brown. The palette choices don’t overwhelm the lavender, pink, and blue highlights Maas uses to signify supernatural events, but skin tones and other neutral hues definitely look off too warm. Some of the shadows are crushed during the most brightly lit and, in turn, yellowest sequences.
Blue Underground supplied three audio options – the original Dutch and English dub stereo tracks and a 5.1 remix of the Dutch track. All options are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The Lift wasn’t designed for an international, English-friendly release (unlike Amsterdamned). The cast doesn’t appear to be dubbing themselves, at the very least. Personally, I’m nostalgic for the English track, because that’s the version I originally saw and I find sloppy dub mix charming. That said, I’m still going to recommend the Dutch 2.0 track for the sake of authenticity and because the multi-channel remix is underwhelming. The directional spread is impressive enough and I like the discrete center channel audio, but volume levels are inconsistent and the music is underrepresented. In stereo, the various elements are otherwise even and balanced. Maas supplied his own musical soundtrack and reportedly recorded the entire thing in one day using synth keyboards. While it is somewhat amateurish, one has to respect the fact that he was able to come up with memorable, tone-setting themes.
Commentary with writer/director Dick Maas and editor Hans van Dongen – This exclusive English language commentary isn’t exactly brimming with energy and there are some long silent stretches (Maas seems to have a cold), but the actual content is strong and informative, thanks to the moderation efforts of David Gregory (who I don’t recall introducing himself). Their discussion covers production/budget difficulties, inspirations, technical challenges, and the state of Dutch filmmaking in the early ‘80s.
Going Up (9:09, HD) – Star Huub Stapel, still cruising through the canals of Amsterdam from his Amsterdamned Blu-ray interview, remembers making The Lift, his feature acting debut, and creating some of the film’s budget-level special effects.
Long Distance (4:13, HD) – In this short film by Maas, a man attempts to call home after a particularly bad car accident.
Dutch and U.S. trailers
Poster, storyboard, and still gallery
Amsterdamned was not completely unavailable stateside in the pre-digital era – there was a VHS release from Vestron in 1989 (whose cover art tried very hard to make it look like an action flick and not a horror movie). However, it was never available on North American DVD. Prospective fans would have to import PAL discs from German (Studio Canal and Eurovideo), Holland (Dice DVD), or the UK (Nouveaux Pictures and Shameless Entertainment). Blue Underground’s Combo Pack represents the film’s first official DVD release in this region and the first Blu-ray release anywhere. Its mere availability is exciting enough, but the company upped the ante by using a brand-new 2K scan of the original film negative for their restored, 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. The first pressing & release was a bit over compressed, so the company issued a replacement (BLU-BD-7072-V2). The results of that second pressing are quite impressive and squeeze loads of detail from the material without messing with the natural grain structure. Elemental separation is tight, but this doesn’t lead to many ‘steppy’ gradations or edge enhancement effects. The restoration process makes the common mistake of pushing blacks a bit too far and creating some crushy shadows. The issue is most obvious during the overbaked daylight sequences, rather than spooky night shots, where, fortunately, important details are still clear (except in some of the killer’s purposefully smeared and wet P.O.V. shots). The colour grading is also more ‘modern’ than I assume the filmmakers originally intended. While the slight orange & tealing is kind of obnoxious (again, mostly in daylight – the cooled night scenes fit the tone perfectly), hue qualities do remain consistent and vibrant. All in all, this is a fantastic effort – one of the studio’s best, in fact.
Amsterdamned is presented in its original Dutch in 2.0 stereo and a new 5.1 remix. Blue Underground also included the English dub in 2.0 and all tracks are uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix is respectable of the original stereo, offering only slight, natural-sounding directional enhancements (both effects and vocals) and better-centered dialogue/incidental effects tracks. The English dub was recorded specifically for Vestron’s VHS release. A number of cast members dubbed themselves, so the tone and inflections are ‘accurate,’ even if the lip sync is not. The bigger issue is that the English dialogue was mixed at inconsistent levels. The bouncy vocal volume is especially noticeable, because the music and effects tracks are nearly identical to their stereo Dutch counterpart. Maas composed the dramatic, sometimes downright danceable synthesizer score himself. It sounds rich on all three tracks and gets a decent bass boost from the 5.1 remix.
Commentary with director Dick Maas and editor Hans van Dongen – Blue Underground’s own David Gregory moderates this new director and editor commentary. Discussion largely surrounds the technical aspects of filmmaking, audience reactions, and Hollywood influences (Maas jokes that “all of his movies” are based on Jaws).
The Making of Amsterdamned (36:15, HD) – This vintage featurette/press kit is made-up of scenes from the film (although taken from the new transfer and added by BU), raw behind-the-scenes footage recorded during the prep and filming of the boat chase, a look at the construction of the sewer sets, and cast & crew interviews.
Tales from the Canal (8:38) – Lead actor Huub Stapel revisits the canal locations and talks about his character, working with Maas, and permanently injuring himself during the boat chase sequence.
Damned Stuntwork (18:12) – In the final new interview, stunt coordinator Dickey Beer discusses his larger career, designing stunts, and the logistics of shooting on-location in Amsterdam.
Loïs Lane "Amsterdamned" music video, directed by Dick Maas (3:29, SD)
Poster, video art, lobby card, and promotional still gallery
Dutch and American trailers
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