Monday, March 9, 2015

Lower Level (1992)

Kristine Peterson probably isn’t a name that is familiar to a number of genre fans however from 1988 to 1997 Peterson helmed a handful of films that should be of interest to genre fans. Peterson cut her teeth working as an assistant director or second unit director on low budget cult classics like Chopping Mall (1982), The Ladies Club (1986), Reform School Girls (1986) and even bigger budget Hollywood productions such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) and Tremors (1990). In the late 80’s Peterson began directing her own films, the first of which was Deadly Dreams (1988), a psychological slasher with far greater ambitions than other films of its ilk. Peterson followed up Deadly Dreams with the Roger Corman backed erotic thriller Body Chemistry (1990), a film that probably isn’t going to be given any awards for “best original screenplay” but is nonetheless one of the best erotic thrillers to come out of the post-Fatal Attraction (1987) craze. Peterson’s career took some pretty interesting lefts, IE Critters 3 (1991) and Kickboxer 5 (1995), but its clear that Peterson was comfortable working in genre film, namely the horror, thriller and action genres and in 1992 she blended the three masterfully with Lower Level, a brilliant low key little B-thriller that despite its title, is at a higher level than most (pun intended) .

Architect Hillary White (Elizabeth Gracen) returns to her high-tech, high rise office building after her boyfriend Craig bails on their plans for a romantic night out together. Unbeknownst to Hillary, Sam (David Bradley) the night watchman at her building has been harboring an obsession with her for the longest time and has planned a special evening of his own for Hillary and himself. Hillary however doesn’t reciprocate his feelings which sends Sam over the edge and Hillary suddenly finds herself trapped inside her office building with a psychopath who controls the entire buildings securely system and every exit.

While there is certainly a direct to video/late night cable vibe to Lower Level, considering the talent involved it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film achieves things similar films wouldn’t even think of attempting. With a dependable director like Peterson and the flawless casting of Gracen and Bradley the film succeeds in being escapist entertainment but also a film with more on its mind than what’s advertised. Although a third player re-enters the film about midway through, this is Gracen and Bradley’s show and both steal equal parts of it. Far from being the stereotypical damsel in distress, Gracen’s Hillary is no victim. She’s a fighter, and Gracen, along with being a knockout beauty, has the presence and personality to make Hillary’s strength convincing. A more than worth opponent to Bradley’s Sam. Perhaps best known for his martial arts skills, Bradley can act and much like Hillary not being a standard genre film victim, Sam isn’t a stock ranting and raving maniac. “Sympathetic” isn’t the right word, but there is an obsessive method to Sam’s madness. Peterson doesn’t shy away from psychology, going the extra mile by acknowledging that it isn’t so much Hillary Sam is “in love” with but rather a fantasy version he’s slowly developed in his head having fetishized her for so long. Of course the other star of the film would be the office building with Peterson’s precise and slick direction wasting none of its spacious yet isolating potential including some pretty innovative moments involving elevator shafts.

After Lower Level Peterson would go on to direct only three more features, the action/caper thriller The Hard Truth (1994) which featured an impressive ensemble trio in the form of Michael Rooker, Lysette Anthony and Eric Roberts, the aforementioned, often maligned Kickboxer 5 and finally the music based drama Slaves to the Underground (1997). In between all that she also directed an episode of the CBS/USA series Silk Stalkings in 1992 as well as an episode of the Playboy series Eden in 1993. Lower Level however is easily her best and most accomplished work and although the films feature different subject matter, Lower Level would nonetheless make for great marathon viewing with Peterson’s Deadly Dreams and Body Chemistry as all three seem to occupy the same obsessive headspace. The film went direct to video and probably pay cable back in the day and the film actually did get a DVD release courtesy of First Look Features. Unfortunately that release seemed to go out of print almost as fast as the discs were pressed and as is so often the case goes for ridiculous prices. Thankfully the film is still easy to find on VHS even though it’d be a beautiful thing to see the film get a re-release on DVD as like the best of Peterson’s films Lower Level epitomizes the term “hidden gem” and deserves better than to be hidden in obscurity.

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