Under the Mountain (2009)

Under the Mountain is a wonderful feature film that holds true to the tone and style of the early Eighties new Zealand television series while updating it with the sensibilities of director Jonathan King’s Black Sheep.

Several years ago, former roommate and fellow Cybermonkey Terry Kirk asked me if I remembered an obscure Nickelodeon television program called Third Eye.  My brother and I, as children, woke up early the day the channel was supposed to launch and watched a blank screen until the signal picked up so I was the perfect person to ask, being there at the moment of launch and all, but I did not remember this particular show.  He described to me a rotating set of programming that were weird little creepy programs for kids filmed in New Zealand in the early Eighties and shown on U.S. television under the Third Eye banner and they made a huge impression on him.  I still didn’t know what he was talking about and, after a few weeks of polling our friends, Mr. Kirk decided to take matters into his own hands and hit the internet, acquiring several of the shows on DVD.  Turns out he was correct.  These shows are creepy little adventure series for kids and hugely entertaining for adults as well and I was shocked I didn’t remember these shows at all.  The standout shows were Children of the Stones, which was a Stonehenge, possession, witches extravaganza and Under the Mountain, which had a Lovecraftian vibe and put two twins up against a series of increasingly evil neighbors.  Both exceeded expectations and still get watched at casa Tron to this day.

Enter Fantastic Fest 2009.  Turns out we got the World Premier of a new film by Jonathan King, the director of the stellar Black Sheep (2006) and it just so happened that that film was a big-budget adaptation of Under the Mountain!  Terry and I were giddy as schoolchildren to see this excellent series adapted for the screen by the Black Sheep guy and the film was a lot of fun.  Now, like a lot of Fantastic Fest films, it sometimes takes forever for the movie to be released in a manner which everyone can see and enjoy and it turns out that this film is not only widely available on DVD but is streaming on Netflix as well so I figured there was no better time to view this movie again and open it up to a whole new audience unaware of it’s existence.

Rachael (Sophie McBride) and Theo (Tom Cameron) are twins that have a limited ability to communicate through thought.  When their mother dies in a car accident, they are shipped off to stay with relatives in an area made up of six formerly active volcanoes.  The children are hit hard by the death of their mother, especially Theo, who pushes Rachael away every chance he gets.  The area they’re staying in is absolutely gorgeous, with chopper shots of the surrounding land and water in such a stunning, panoramic view… everything but the broken down Wilburforce Mansion just across the lake from where the twins are staying.  Of course the kids are curious and discover, much to their chagrin that the Wilburforces are genuinely creepy and up to no good.  While on a visit to one of the big volcano craters, Theo spies a dirty old hobo who seemingly has the ability to create fire with his hands.  It is not until later in the evening that Theo discovers the hobo’s picture in a book about the region’s volcanoes.  Determined to discover what’s occurring, Theo visits the volcano again and confronts Mr. Jones (Sam Neill), who reveals that he is not of this Earth…and neither are the Wilburforces!  It turns out the Wilburforces are conquering aliens who were imprisoned on this planet by Mr. Jones’ race, who were almost wiped out to a man by the Wilburforces and their servitors, the Gargantuas, who were bound beneath the six volcanoes in the region.  Only twins could effect this imprisonment and Mr. Jones’ brother was tragically killed.  Now Mr. Jones has been searching for twins with the power to destroy the Wilburforces by throwing a pair of magic stones into the main volcano but thus far his search has met with continual failure.  Theo is excited as anything to be given the power of fire but it it his sister’s belief in their twin bond that allows Theo to utilize the power of the stone.  Rachel herself is unable to even hold her stone because of the mental wall Theo has built in order to overcome his grief at the loss of their mother.  The Wilburforces continue to grow stronger and increasingly more desperate to make the twins and Mr. Jones dead before they’re wiped out, utilizing shape-shifting, terror and violence to separate the twins and to try and take them out.  Can our twins overcome the grief and loss of their mother and unite in destroying the Wilburforce threat or will the whole planet be consumed when the Gargantuas awake?

Under the Mountain succeeds mightily where other teen fare like City of Ember (2008) fall short and that’s in giving an engaging and creepy story that will attract more than it’s target audience of pre-teen and teen viewers.  Credit Jonathan King for utilizing the same horrific stylings that made Black Sheep such an entertaining hit to a movie that’s a remake of an old television series decidedly for young viewers, making it a fun experience for adults as well.  Nice role reversal also in that Rachel is the strong twin whose belief in her brother gives him extraordinary powers while Theo is whiny and confused and the element that could cause destruction on an unparallelled scale.   Sam Neill brings his veteran skills to this picture and though he’s not the focal point, still manages to be effective on screen as the mentor who also hides some secrets from his new students, such as the death and abandonment of his last set of twins and he himself must overcome internal doubts to ensure a favorable resolution.  Both Ms. McBride and Mr. Cameron are serviceable as the twins but aren’t entirely believable and it is safe to say they have a lot to learn about being normal teenagers but they work well enough in their respective roles that they don’t do a disservice to the film.  The Wilburforce actors are all you could want out of old, creepy alien neighbors and though Mr. King removes the television series’ shoggoth, he maintains enough of their Lovecraftian roots to make them scary and effective villains.  The whole film works well as an adventure film as well as a genuinely creepy little horror tale for younger audiences.

Under the Mountain is a wonderful feature film that holds true to the tone and style of the early Eighties new Zealand television series while updating it with the sensibilities of director Jonathan King’s Black Sheep.  Entertaining for both adults and children alike, Under the Mountain is definitely a good time in front of your television and worthy of a viewing.  The movie impressed me in the theater and again when viewing it a couple nights ago with good friend Zane Duncan, who had seen the television series with me but remembered very little.  He got right into it and enjoyed the experience immensely, as I hope you will too.  Give Under the Mountain a try – you might even be inspired to find the old series (which I’m sure I’ll be writing up at some point) and discover how truly awesome that was too.  Kudos to Jonathan King for masterfully updating this obscure but wonderful series for a whole new generation to enjoy.

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