What do you call a bunch of Australians tossed down a hole? A good start. I kid of course – “a mediocre movie” is more like it. And that’s precisely what you get with Alister Grierson’s Sanctum a 3D thriller in which a crew of cave divers struggle to survive after a monsoon-driven flood pins them thousands of feet underground.
Sanctum is set in Papua New Guinea but was mostly shot in the sprawling caves of South Australia. The cast is dominated by local actors many of whom will prove unrecognizable to moviegoers residing above the equator – which frankly isn’t all that much of a hindrance since the lot of them will be killed off long before the closing credits roll.
The cast’s lone non-Aussie – and the film’s most familiar face – is Welshman Ioan Gruffudd who plays Carl a gratingly cocky American industrialist whose wealth funds the whole caving (the word “spelunking” is never used much to my chagrin) expedition and whose extreme-tourist bent compels him to come along for the ride. He also brings his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) whose strong-mindedness you just know is going to become a liability when the sh*t hits the fan.
The sh*t in the case of Sanctum is an apocalyptic storm that arrives days before it’s supposed to triggering an avalanche of boulders that effectively seals off all possible exits. With the water level rising and a near-zero chance of rescue the group’s hardened no-nonsense leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) decrees that their best hope of survival lies in finding an alternate means of escape via an unexplored stretch of tunnels thought to lead to the ocean.
The situation grows gradually more desperate and characters succumb one by one to the hazards of the deep in fairly predictable disaster-flick order. (The aging female is first to go followed by the ethnic guy etc.) Sanctum cycles through a series of grisly fatalities – including one delightful bit in which a shock of hair caught in a climbing apparatus results in an impromptu scalping – until finally the last man standing is Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) a moody 17-year-old who has heretofore spent most of the film acting out with childish spite toward his neglectful dad. Out of supplies exhausted but with his exquisite surfer-dude haircut thankfully still intact Josh must complete the remainder of the harrowing journey alone.
Director Grierson packs Sanctum with some truly breathtaking visuals. The underwater cinematography shot with 3D cameras Grierson spent six-plus years developing is particularly stunning. But the film’s script clearly didn’t receive as much care and attention as its cameras. The action is occasionally gripping but the story lacks suspense and its tone largely fails to evoke the gnawing claustrophobia that presumably festers in such a dark musty subterranean labyrinth. Moreover it’s littered with truly execrable dialogue made worse by ADR that sounds as if it were recorded in a cozy basement studio.
Executive producer James Cameron is featured prominently in Sanctum’s advertising campaign but the film itself bears scant evidence of his involvement save perhaps for the splendid underwater scenes. I half-suspect he viewed the project as a tool to develop and test his 3D technology in preparation for his amphibious Avatar sequel. He certainly didn’t use it to brush up on his storytelling skills.
Twins Carly and Nick Jones (played by Cuthbert and One Tree Hill heartthrob Chad Michael Murray)--with Carly being the pretty goal-oriented "good" twin and Nick the sullen brooding "bad" one-- are road tripping to catch the big college game. Along for the ride are Carly's beau Wade (Gilmore Girls' Jared Padelecki) mini-cam-obsessed Dalton (Jon Abrahams) sports fan Blake (Robert Ri'chard) and his maybe-preggers girlfriend Paige (Paris Hilton in her first major acting role--unless you count certain portions of her infamous sex video). The requisite car trouble ultimately leads them to a requisitely isolated Iowa town where they must seek help from the requisitely creepy locals. Dominating the town is the House of Wax a paraffin-filled museum which doesn't just feature amazing wax likenesses of people and objects: the whole place is made out of wax walls and all. This despite being constructed over a fiery furnace used for…well these films aren't about logic are they? Throw in the requisite twisted menacing blood-lusting boogeyman--but wait! Let's have TWO bad guys! And make them twins! (Did I mention the script was written by Chad and Carey Hayes who happen to be twin brothers?) Cut to the running and the chasing and the cinematic carnage the corpses turned into those impossibly lifelike wax figurines the curvy Cuthbert in a white tank top and the impossibly big drippy finale and call it a day. This is just a messy pile of waxy build-up that'll take an extra-long Q-Tip to clean out of your brain.
Despite the jibes she gets for her 24 character's penchant for getting into laughably contrived peril the pert and sexy Cuthbert--who fills up a movie screen even more potently than the tube and lent a genuine vulnerability and pathos to her smoldering turn in The Girl Next Door--is emerging as one of the more interesting actresses of her TV-launched generation. Despite her natural charisma however there's no such opportunity for a multidimensional turn in House of Wax and for her career's sake Cuthbert should make this film her one-stop shopping trip to Horror-dom. She's made for much better things and the sickly sadistic and bloody punishments she endures in this film quite frankly can only distract her admirers from how hot she is. Murray also impresses as a film presence though he too is stuck in this thankless mess as the rebel who really has nothing to rebel against. Padelecki the film's "Hey let's see what's in here!" jackass whose idiotic actions drives every shallow horror plot should stick to his day job. And then there are the splendors of Paris: both she and the filmmakers seem to think that stripping the heiress of accessories like her tiny dog Tinkerbell and her Pepto-pink fashions is all that's necessary to believe Hilton as an entirely different character. Except none of us really want Paris to be an entirely different character. She's really only entertaining--and often equally as stiff and insipid like she is in this film--as herself and we'd all rather see her and Nicole Richie (or Kim Stewart or whatever less attractive less-wealthy and less-ditzy sidekick she's hanging with these days) screaming bloody murder at a real House of Waxing.
Let's hope for his sake music video director Jaume Serra didn't burn any bridges at MTV when he got called to the Hollywood ranks because House of Wax effectively demonstrates a lack of invention as a visualist an inability to effectively pace and develop a story--even one as shallow as this one--and an utter incapacity to create tension suspense or any genuine fear. The only scares here are the kind of easy unearned "pop-up-and-say-BOO!" variety that does little more than jolt the audience and cause their popcorn to spill. I'm tempted to give him mini-props for the nearly impressive and gooey finale but the credit probably belongs more to the f/x team than Serra. And it's shocking to learn that the entire film was shot on location in Australia if only because the claustrophobic town in which most of the action takes place seems as artificial and hermetically sealed as the Universal backlot.