[Fantastic Fest 2022 Review] ‘Deep Fear’ scratches the surface of subterranean horror

Parisians sit on top of one of the most daunting places in the world, yet they don’t make all that many movies about it. With up to six million people buried throughout the Paris Catacombs, it’s not exactly an enticing tourist destination, unless you’re one of these cataphiles who can’t get enough of tight spaces. That’s what Grégory Beghin‘s first horror movie has to offer; misguided thrill seekers find themselves trapped in an airless, underground network of tunnels and death.

Deep Fear begins with the standard teaser seen in these kinds of movies; a random character becomes prey for an unseen antagonist. A tagger is dragged through a small tunnel before meeting an untimely end off screen. Fast forward to 1991 and the movie’s main characters are introduced at a bar. These three good-looking college grads are having a bittersweet time since Henry (Victor Meutelet) is leaving for the military, which was mandatory in those days. Since they won’t be together again for some time, Sonia (Sofia Lesaffre) wants to make this a special occasion. Hence dragging Henry and their mutual friend Max (Kassim Meesters) into the Catacombs.

This Belgian-French movie fails to make the Catacombs seem all that appealing to anyone other than urban spelunkers, so you have to suspend your disbelief about why Sonia and her friends agree to enter this buried labyrinth. They’re not even going on an official tour; the three are taking a less safe route led by Ramy (Joseph Olivennes), Sonia’s occasional drug dealer and a self-confessed cataphile. Although the characters may need little convincing to go inside, the same can’t be said for the audience. Of all places to be low-effort, the script speeds through the most crucial decision in the entire story.

This train of bad choices leaves the station as the group goes deeper and deeper into the Catacombs, crossing paths with skinheads, and narrowly escaping collapsing passageways. It’s a harrowing journey, and we’ve yet to even meet the real threat of Deep Fear. While a side character searches for her brother, the tagger from the opener, the central cast gets lost, then enclosed with no apparent way out of this mess. Beghin does good work making the surroundings feel and look smaller and smaller as the story slowly introduces its ultimate obstacle.

It’s best to go into Deep Fear with no idea of what to expect. There’s a surprisingly left-field twist that possibly connects to Henry’s deployment, although the link is unimportant. There is also the matter of the skinheads who appear as early as the bar scene. They crop up again and again throughout the movie, maybe as a reminder of their real-life recurrences. As for the peak threat, it happens so late in the game it might not feel like it’s enough to justify your patience. On the contrary, the script is so casual about this revelation that you almost feel obliged to be shocked on the characters’ behalf.

Subterranean settings are indeed one of the most universally terrifying environments in horror. And while Deep Fear isn’t exactly a sterling example, its depiction of a proximate kind of hell beneath our feet is nothing to balk at. The increasingly stuffy atmosphere, the slowly inhaled dread, likable enough characters, and some eventual bloodletting all make up for any initial shakiness. It’s straightforward horror that neither overstays its welcome nor pretends to be anything but a movie about French folks stuck in the Catacombs with a monster. As simple as that sounds, it’s also refreshing.

Deep Fear screened at Fantastic Fest 2022.

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