June 05, 2007

Underground Cinema - subway movies

Movies on the tube - the sub-genre of underground transit thrillers

Not that Underground cinema.

I’m talking about the London Underground, which I've been using for years, and subway travel in other cities, which I like to try out. From the splendour of the old Moscow Metro, with its over the top chandeliers hanging in stations, to the brand new systems in Bangkok (seen briefly in Garuda) and Los Angeles (seen in The Italian Job remake).

I feel that their true dramatic potential is rarely realised in dramatic or creepy terms in cinema. Particularly the overwhelming claustrophobia of the underground walkways, and the forbidding, dark tunnel entrances waiting at the ends of the platform.

Before I'd even ridden on London's Undergound, Doctor Who suggested that Abominable Snowmen, (large furry robots with glowing eyes) roamed the cobweb-festooned tunnels (in The Web of Fear storyline). A few years later, Quatermass and the Pit was regularly on TV, a sci-fi disaster movie set in the fictional station of Hobb's End. There's a horrifying shot of a crowd of people fallen on a stairway, trying to escape a collapsing station, that looks all too plausible.

There’s the scene in An American Werewolf in London, which I wish went on for longer. The escalator scene, where the businessman is chased and killed on the steps, was shot in Tottenham Court Road station, which I use every workday.

Death Line is an obvious example, a sort of seventies Creep, but it's never worked for me - good idea, but strangely unscary. It doesn’t match the horror and dread of the scenes that I’ve read – like in James Herbert’s The Rats, the titular characters pour out of a tunnel and onto the platform – an image I frequently recall when standing around looking at 'Tube mice' running around by the tracks in the suicide pit (the trench designed to help potential suicides fall below the train, rather than in front of it).

Even more terrifying is Clive Barker’s short story Midnight Meat Train, (from his first of his Books of Blood) which I foolishly read while riding on the Underground. I have high hopes that this will be terrifying when it arrives as a new movie, directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus).

'Underground cinema' I’ve seen recently includes
Creep, which really didn’t get me going, Kontroll which was an enjoyable, quirky thriller set in Budapest's metro, and Tube - a Korean actioner which is amusing, but never as exciting as the short chaotic Subway sequences in Speed or Die Hard With a Vengeance. In the latter, I loved the train careering sideways along the platform, but remember a nightmare which went one better, with a train leaving the rails and performing a corkscrew out of the tunnel.

The New York subway has been action-packed for a while. I would certainly recommend The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – a taut train-hijacking caper (trailer here on YouTube) starring a steely Robert Shaw, and of course Walter Hill's iconic The Warriors, which inspired me to ride all the way down to Coney Island, to finally see the Wonder Wheel in 2000.

Because back in 1973, on my previous visit to the Big Apple, my parents had been warned NOT to ride the subway – frightened by newspaper warnings to tourists, when the system's public profile was very grimey and crimey, very Death Wish.

We didn't dare find out how true it was. We had a look at Grand Central Station, then ducked out and took a bus...

P.S. OK, on reflection, for now, The Warriors has nailed the atmosphere of the subway the best. Give it a ride.
P.P.S. Of course, someone has taken this topic waaaaaay too seriously... check out this site about London Undergound in the movies.

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  1. thanks for your interesting blog. i'm bummed that hollywood has again decided to remake an excellent 1970's movie--the taking of pelham 1,2,3, and most likely turn it into garbage. what can you do? In this subway genre you might enjoy this feature that was made a couple of years ago in Canada. the end of the line.http://www.movie-forumz.org/showthread.php?t=68008it is truly original .

  2. Yeah, the new trailer just makes me want to watch the original again.

    I will take up your suggestion on END OF THE LINE too, it looks interesting and, as you can tell, I'm a fan of this sub(terranean)-genre...