<<Preface>> This is a first viewing for me.
I know nothing about this film except what I’ve read on the Netflix movie synopsis leader (which, incidentally, has been so wrong on so many occasions, it’s probably best to ignore them altogether and go over to the good old imdb.com site if you want to know anything about a film). The premise is simple enough – a young engineer, played by Mischa Barton (forget that she’s mainly been a television actor – that shouldn’t matter here) realizes that the building she’s been tasked with demolishing hosts the bodies of those who were entombed in cement when the building was erected. With that said, I am completely sucked in within fifteen seconds of the film’s grisly beginning.
Made with the participation of Canal+ (those mad French geniuses who also brought us La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element), Walled In is based on the best-selling French novel Les Emmurés by Serge Brussolo.
Hot credits – I’m a big fan of using the credits as a way to passively introduce the audience to the history leading up to the beginning of the film. Great montage here of newspaper clippings, aged photography, and police evidence. It’s successful in setting a certain tone that prepares you for what lies ahead – crucial for a crime thriller/horror/drama.
When we open, Sam (Mischa Barton) is celebrating her birthday with family, friends, and an old professor. Immediately, we learn she’s just graduated from school (the first in her family), and that she comes from a family of demolition experts. “Should have known she’s not an arcitect. Sam’s a Walczak and we blow sh*t up.” Being her 25th birthday, and that she’s also graduated, her father presents an interesting proposal – her first demolition project on her own, and if she succeeds, she’s no longer her father’s employee, but his partner.
Sam treks out into the middle of nowhere – in the Grand Ridge National Park – to find the building her father wants her to demolish. As the building looms in the distance beyond the dirty windshield of her old pick up, she loses her cell phone coverage. Of course. That’s just a warning to us. Something to remember, later.
Inside, she meets Mary (played by Deborah Kara Unger) and Jimmy (Cameron Bright – you might remember him from any one of a number of films, like Ultraviolet and Birth, but he’s growing up now, and looks a bit different) – the building’s caretakers. To save energy, the lights switch off every 6 minutes…how…efficient. Imagine needing to hit a light switch every 6 minutes in order to continue doing anything.
Malestrazza, the building’s architect, had an entire floor for his own use. Of course, that floor is off-limits, as is the roof (where giant solar panels hang).
Sam, who will stay on site during the process of preparing the building for demolition, settles in by taking a bath and cleaning up. Love the blues of the bathroom here and how well the set matches everything about the character. When she finishes in the bathroom, she’s surprised that Mary is hovering in the apartment. She’s brought a welcoming basket full of red wine, pasta, and a bit of bad news about the previous tenants. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering by now why the people who inhabited the room in which Sam now resides left all of their stuff (furniture, photos, etc). Well, Mary isn’t going to tell us everything just yet – she simply lets us know that the place has an unfortunate history and that no one came to collect the items left by the tenants. It’s grim, in a way, because in the corner of the living room is a Christmas tree, complete with multi-color blinking lights. On the record player nearby? An album with “Silent Night.”
The next morning, Sam begins a barrage of tests to determine the building’s weakest points. It doesn’t take her long to discover there are discrepancies between the actual, physical building and it’s blueprints. She sets out to the roof, first, even though Jimmy has told her it’s off-limits. Everything you need to know about a character you can determine by whether or not they follow other character’s warnings.
Don’t miss the story arc here when Sam discovers and reads a portion of Jimmy’s notebook which she later uses to get him to show her the eighth floor, where he’s claimed the building’s architect Malestrazza once resided. She knows that Jimmy’s lying, because during a visit to a local grocer, she’s used the internet to learn Malestrazza died before the building was finished. The two agree to check out the eighth floor later that night if Jimmy can steal his mom’s pass key. You see a little bit of the family dynamic between Mary and Jimmy when he returns home and she slaps him, twice…hard, for speaking with Sam.
Back at the Malestrazza building, Sam is shaken when one of the remaining residents wields an axe out of rage and crashes it into a wall where she is taking readings. Thankfully, a nearby resident, a crazy ex-pat named Denise, overhears the thuds of the axe and invites Sam in for a cup of tea. Inside, we discover a vast library once the property of Malestrazza. Sam quickly steals away one of the books and later reads from it:
“It was believed that human energy and emotions could be imprinted in the foundations of a structure. Fear and death were considered to be the most powerful elements to increase a building’s longevity. The Egyptians practiced this by immuring sacrificial humans.”
When Jimmy and Sam venture to the eighth floor later that night, she learns Jimmy was born in this building (which was built in 1990), and has also stolen books from Denise. He also regales Sam with a previous tenant named Tom Sullivan who worked at a nearby factory and when fired for a previous rape conviction, disappears into thin air. Rumors circulate that Tom was using hidden passageways within the building, peering at the other residents through two-way mirrors. Catch the great, quick montage here between the last of the remaining residents right before Jimmy and Sam enter Malestrazza’s apartment.
They explore his apartment – gaping holes are torn open in the cement, bent re bar sticking out where bodies have been located and extracted, including that of Malestrazza himself (who, as it turns out, actually did reside in the building, after all) whose face was almost ripped off by the cement. Among the victims, Jimmy’s father and at least fifteen other people. Uncool alert — Jimmy clicks his dog when it begins to bark. Animal cruelty is effective in films only to the extent they alert you to damaged characters. It’s disgusting and vile and totally repugnant to show this kind of behavior.
Enough of my animal right’s tirade – someone’s followed Sam and Jimmy into Malestrazza’s apartment. I suspect it’s the same guy who earlier showed his axe to Sam in the hallway, but you’re only meant to believe that. Misdirection is par for the course.
“One, two, he’s coming for you. Three, four, cement will pour. Five, six, it fills up quick. Seven, eight, you’re too late. Nine, ten, he’ll wall you in…” a childish choir sings as Sam runs around in the dark trying to find Jimmy. I know this is meant to be an intense moment, but somehow the song that is also used as a melody in the Nightmare on Elm Street series is ultimately ineffective here. I was laughing as I tried to type the words.
There is a sweet, and inappropriate, moment between Sam and Jimmy when she removes her pants, lets her hair down, and Jimmy cleans a gash on her knee after she’s taken a nasty fall. Did I mention Jimmy is home schooled, has only one friend, and a dog whom he kicks? Yeah, I’m somehow sensing the whole home schooled, sheltered adolescence thing is working out perfectly for him. He leaves, quickly, when questioned about his hand on her thigh. When, not if but when, I start having nightmares about the walls coming to life, sprouting arms, and trying to suck me in I’ll know it’s time for a long vacation.
The Malestrazza building is starting to get to Sam. The nightmares have started – she dreams of being entombed, cement engulfing her. She shaken to her core and when her professor boyfriend shows up, she has the strength to confront Mr. Burnett (aka Axeman). We learn Malestrazza gave him this apartment, and that he was the prime suspect in the murders that took place in the building. All in all, the film loses momentum here, for now. Next, we overhear a conversation between Mary and the hole from where Jimmy’s father was extracted. As she leaves, Sam and her boyfriend are trapped inside Malestrazza’s apartment – and Sam finds a hidden passage, not seen in the blueprints. I love the idea of secret hallways, two-way mirrors except when they can be used against me. And let’s face it, these things are always capitalized upon by the unscrupulous. Always. Like our dear teenager, Jimmy, who’s been using the passage to watch Sam bathe. Ah, teenagers, what special contributions they make.
Sam’s boyfriend convinces her to leave on their trip in the morning when she’s still distressed that night after all that’s happened. Jimmy listens, crying, as Sam and her boyfriend…enjoying each other’s company. And despite the pact they made the night before, as the cold morning light shines in upon them, you somehow know they’re not going to be leaving anytime soon. When Sam find’s the beheaded body of Jimmy’s dog, you realize things are going to get worse from here on in, this is your cue.
Quickly, Sam finishes her demolition report despite the fact that the blueprints are incorrect. What a stroke of luck when Jimmy arrives with an apology – a book of Malestrazza’s which details the hidden intricacies of the building. It looks gorgeous – too bad we don’t get to see more of it.
If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, we have all of the pieces for the final climax – all sorts of weird suspects, a tainted past, previous murders that could be linked to future crimes or discoveries, and one final mystery. Where did the rest of the 100+ tenants of the Malestrazza building go? It’s not quite pitch perfect, but it does the trick…because to get to this point, you’ve only been spoon fed the things you need to know. It isn’t until Sam falls down a shaft from the roof of the building that everything comes, at last, into focus.
The final word: Walled In is not always what you want it to be, but it does succeed on many levels. It is ultimately satisfying – both as a thriller and as a character study (although you will probably not be surprised by the ways in which the actors respond to the situations into which they are thrust), and delightful…if a crime thriller/horror/drama can be (and in my world, it can). The ending is operatic and as a viewer, having made it thus far, you will be rewarded for your efforts. In the words of Deborah Kara Unger this film is “Edgar Allen Poe meets Hitchcock.” Enjoy.
Wiki facts: Walled In
Rotten Tomatoes: 23%
Watch or Buy: Walled In on Amazon