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20 Feet Below: The Darkness Descending
Stars: Danny Trejo, Kinga Philipps, Frank Krueger
Director: Marc Clebanoff
Rated: R
Running Time: 84 min
DVD Released March 18, 2014
Reviewed by Hal C F Astell

I watched this awkwardly titled movie as part of a Danny Trejo kick, but I had absolutely no idea what I was about to see. The cover on Netflix shows Trejo as an angel with an axe and, frankly, I'd still love to see that movie but this isn't it. He's far from an avenging angel here, finding that role more in films like 'Machete' or 'Bad Ass'.

In some ways, it's an interesting movie, especially from a cinematic standpoint because it masks its lack of budget by cloaking it all in darkness. The location and choice of material is intriguing too, almost the entire movie unfolding in the tunnels beneath the streets of New York, hence that darkness because there's little electric light and even less of any other sort, just a few fires here and there in the more obvious haunts of the people living down there.

In others, it's a frustrating ride because it's half preachy social comment about the homeless and half cheesy drama about Angel and his drive to fight back against a system that must have wronged him in his mind but which we never really get to figure out. Angel is Trejo, in a role that calls on him to be seen less and heard more, rather strangely as he's great in the strong, silent roles that call for the precise opposite. What I discovered here is that he isn't necessarily bad at dialogue, he's just bad at being cheerful. When Angel is being seriously dark, he sounds great, but when Angel is being playfully dark, he's really cheesy.

It seems that the reason behind both the title and its shorter alternative, 'Darkness Descends', is a web series I'd never heard of called 'The Darkness Descending', which was made back in 2009. Looking at the episode details, this is very much a progression because many of the same characters populate it, including the main name behind the show, Frank Krueger. He created it and took the lead role of Jake Armstrong for himself, a cop whose back story I'm interested in finding out, because his place in this picture feels very much like a sequel, always referencing what he was before.

Here in a feature written by Krueger, Jake is an ex-cop, living in the tunnels with the homeless people he presumably used to protect and serve. He's also an widower, because his wife, who he clearly loved very much, was murdered before this picture began. He's struggling to come to terms with it and the struggle isn't necessarily one we care to watch at length. For a while he's intriguing but he soon becomes too self-absorbed for us to connect with. I spent the first half of the film hoping he would snap out of it so he could find some real purpose. We really don't get there.

The other protagonist on the side of the 'good guys' is Chelsea, a documentary filmmaker from New Jersey played by Kinga Philipps, who's shooting a film about the tunnel dwellers. She has the opposite dynamic to Jake. Initially she's inconsequential, just a means to link various stories she finds underground together. As the film runs on, though, she becomes more interesting because she does have substance behind her and we want to know more about why she's here and what she feels she might accomplish. We really don't get there either.

On the dark side, if that's not a terrible turn of phrase for a film shot predominantly in darkness, is Angel, Trejo's man of mystery who's preparing for violent revolution from the lower depths. He's set up as a mythical character, initially seen murdering an important man from above in a swordfight he sets up in the tunnels. He wins, of course. As a myth, he's given no background at all, which works until he starts to have a larger part to play. Then he becomes frustratingly empty.

The fight between the sides is what ought to drive the film but it's left untouched for far too long. Instead we focus on the social side of the good guys and the odd plotting scene of the bad guys. Eventually, when it finally comes down, it starts to get interesting, especially as a variety of peripheral characters start to find their place in the wider story and make their presence felt. I liked a lot of these characters, but wanted them to have more to do. I can totally see why Krueger initially set this up as a webseries.

And at the end of the day, I'd like to see this as a webseries with a whole string of little stories linked together. This film, however, forces all that into one big story which promises a lot but delivers only a little. It takes what should have been strong social comment tinged with urban fantasy and turns it into a 'Lifetime' channel movie with an inevitably happy Hollywood ending. I'm happy that Krueger got his opportunity but, very sadly, he wasted most of it.

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