The idea of the haunted house on the block or the bizarre resident that school children run away from on sight didn't originate in To Kill a Mockingbird, even though it is a favorite literary device. And if you ask any child, chances are they'll be able to point out the “scary” house located nearest to where they live.
From reciting urban legends to campfire tales, they may even reveal just what about that address frightens them the most whether they repeat a story they overheard or make it up on the spot. Most likely it's some variation of the same myths about hooks for hands or bogeymen lurking in the dark.
However, if the kids you're talking to have either read Maurice Gee's 1979 novel Under the Mountain or seen the popular New Zealand 1981 TV miniseries based upon the book, then you may have a little more trouble sleeping after hearing them relay a Gee inspired version. For despite being a total stranger to the Gee novel, I think that if I'd seen this truncated feature film adaptation when I was a tween, I would've used a night light well into my twenties.
And while I can't speak for the impact of the book, because filmmaker Jonathan King called upon the five-time Oscar winning special effects geniuses at the WETA Workshop, his 2009 big screen endeavor which screened as an official selection at the Toronto Film Festival, turned what I assumed would be a family fantasy film into one intense creature feature.
Yet true to the target audience, all of the mystery and adventure to come first begins with that one creepy Auckland residence near the lake which was rumored to have served as a funeral parlor at one point.
Having lost their mother in a tragic accident, young teen twins Rachel (Sophie McBride) and Theo Matheson (Tom Cameron) give their grieving father some time to heal, moving in with relatives in Auckland where they soon stumble onto bizarre creatures and events that all stem from their fascination with the “Wilberforce” residence.
Both struggling with their fading telepathic connection with one another that's become weakened with age and as the two come to grips with their loss, Rachel and Theo realize that they have to trust in their relationship more than ever if they plan to survive.
They soon face everything from alien forces to volcanoes, mini-quakes, shapeshifting creatures that seem like a cross between the otherworldly villain in Predator with The Swamp Thing, and a raptor straight out of Jurassic Park, which also starred they're “fire-raiser” co-star Sam Neill who is the key to deciphering what exactly is going on.
While the last act is filled with fantastical action that finally excels in “showing” us what's happening rather than trying to “tell” us as the movie is sometimes bogged down by its incredibly complicated plot, overall King's film has a hard time trying to figure out exactly what tone he's going for throughout.
Moving from some unspeakably creepy moments to rather terrifying showdowns mixed in with moments of light humor to trying to reinforce the theme of sibling solidarity in its brisk ninety-one minute running time, Under the Mountain never manages to strike the right balance to make its ever evolving approach work.
By trying to be all styles of film for all potential young adult viewers, Under the Mountain loses its momentum, despite the fact that its superlative cinematography, highly polished production values and top-notch special effects are first rate.
Needless to say it's the type of movie you'll definitely want to preview before you introduce it to your children. For in the end Under the Mountain may be best appreciated as a sort of scarier hybrid of Walt Disney's Witch Mountain series meets The Watcher in the Woods with Lord of the Rings technology.
Just don't be surprised if you find yourself reaching deep into the cabinet to pull out a night light after you finish the PG-13 work... especially if you have to pass the creepiest neighborhood house on your way to work the next day.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.