Lower Level (1991): The Depths of Obsession

Matty submits to the thought-provoking thrills of Kristine Peterson’s nifty suspenser.

Sam (David Bradley) has rustled up an intimate supper for him and Hillary (Elizabeth Gracen).

“I thought you’d like it,” Sam says.

Hillary doesn’t.

And rightly so.

For one, they’re in the middle of a locked underground car park. For another, Hillary has no idea who Sam is. Yes, he’s the security guard in the Ballardian high-rise that Hillary, a successful architect, has designed and now works in. But, beyond the usual pleasantries — the “good mornings” and the “goodbyes” — she doesn’t know him from Adam. Sam knows Hillary, though — and it’s during this moment, when the penny drops and Hillary begins to suspect that something is very, very wrong about the already strange situation she’s suddenly found herself in, that LOWER LEVEL bristles with brilliance.

The second film produced by Joel Soisson, W.K. Border, and Michael Leahy’s Neo Motion Pictures/Neo Art & Logic, Lower Level builds upon the surprisingly feminist bent of their inaugural outing, Blue Desert (1991), and, like that atmospheric thriller, finds another woman under prolonged attack from an entitled man. While Soisson’s script leans towards contrivance to keep Hillary in danger from her stalker (Sam can, of course, control every bit of electronic hardware in the skyscraper with the click of a button), and features a dud white knight-y part for Jeff Yagher that exists solely to facilitate a few set pieces, it’s easy to overlook Lower Level’s less logically sound passages as it’s so well done. The smattering of action as Hillary and Sam play cat and mouse around the bowels of the building is great entertainment, but it’s the quieter, dialogue-driven stuff a la the aforementioned dinner scene that twists the suspense screws.  

What makes it so effective is Kristine Peterson’s direction. The immediate, knee-jerk description would be that she gives Lower Level an intrinsically female perspective. However, there’s a frightening, skin-crawling truth to the way in which she presents Hillary and Sam’s interactions that transcends the gender divide. They’re laced with that fear; that scary, unspoken tension that men allow to fester between them and women, and exploit to their advantage. Former Miss. America (1982) Gracen unleashes a heartbreaking masterclass in being terrified and trying not to show it, treading on eggshells around Sam and second guessing her every move as she tries to figure out whether her being held hostage by a lovelorn psycho is or isn’t her fault (it isn’t). She apologises, she flatters, she schmoozes — anything to escape Sam’s clutches. Thankfully, Peterson isn’t afraid to point the finger at the never better Bradley’s magnificently performed creep and quashes any doubt by simply parading the facts — and, in the process, the helmer asks plenty of provocative questions regarding our own behaviour for us blokes to ponder. 

Lensed by future Christopher Nolan stalwart Wally Pfister and featuring a marvellous score by Terry Plumeri, Lower Level was released straight-to-tape in the U.S. on 16th January 1992 via Republic Home Video, just over five weeks after Peterson’s horror comedy sequel Critters 3 (1991) hit stateside video stores on 11th December 1991. They make for interesting watching back to back. Despite their contrasting tones, Lower Level and Critters 3 share a similar structure and set-up (i.e. people trapped inside a building), and both feature someone dangling upside down by their ankle and end on a rooftop. Funnier still is that Peterson recycles a ‘falling on top of a vehicle’ gag for two different kinds of laughs. It’s used as a slapstick, pre-credits scene capper in Critters 3, and as a darkly amusing sign-off in Lower Level.

Here in the U.K., Lower Level was issued on cassette by CIC Video in September 1992 — which, again, was the same month that Critters 3 arrived on British tape through Entertainment in Video.

USA ● 1991 ● Thriller ● 88mins

Elizabeth Gracen, David Bradley, Jeff Yagher ● Dir. Kristine Peterson ● Wri. Joel Soisson, from a story by Michael Leahy, Hillary Black, W.K. Border

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s