Based on Maurice Gee's 1979 novel of the same name, UNDER THE MOUNTAIN is very much a children's film. That shouldn't make you think it is any less ominous, sincere or polished than the average adult horror/fantasy flick. If you are the right age, it might resemble one of those live-action (and often disappointing) Disney films from the '70s, where courageous children detect a dark force and set out to prevent it from overcoming their hometown. It's Lovecraft for tweens, actually, and that's a film we just haven't seen yet.
Theo and Rachel are teenage twins who have suffered the sudden and unexpected death of their mother. Their father ships them off to stay with relatives in the luxuriously-cinematic area surrounding Auckland, New Zealand. While Rachel is adjusting, Theo hasn't figured out how to work through his grief, and becomes sullen and withdrawn. Familiarizing themselves with the volcanic lakes and mountains nearby, Theo meets a strange gentleman named Mr. Jones who appears to have fire erupting from his palms. One additional and very critical point: Rachel and Theo share a powerful psychic bond that seems to be attracting a strange group of men who live in the dingy old house across the lake.
Tom Cameron and Sophie McBride acquit themselves nicely as the twins, good-kid siblings with no apparent vices or penchants for bad behavior (other than investigating dark forces without any backup). They are likable and fresh-faced, and that gives the film a safe feel, even with Sam Neill around as Mr. Jones, who in real life might warrant cries of "stranger danger". He's a bit shabby, his eyes are a little too intense and he gets familiar with the kids awfully fast (in one scene, a neighbor calls the police when Mr. Jones invites them into his home). Neill makes Jones feel like an older, wiser version of his character in John Carpenter's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (and there's the Lovecraft connection again). But he's the Obi-Wan to their Junior Skywalkers; if headstrong Theo will just settle down and listen to him, Mr. Jones can explain the potential apocalypse just over the next horizon.
With its mature themes of loss and trust wrapped around a core of fantasy dread, director Jonathan King has created a fun piece of dark whimsy for the youth market, and in the process makes good use of Gee's source material. While it smacks of One Hardy Boy & Nancy Drew Vs. The Shaggy Aliens, the camerawork lovingly captures the local scenery, and the special effects, while nothing new, are refined and used sparingly. Overall, this is a very nice film that you likely won't feel a need to see unless you a) have some children that are tired of the latest animated comedies or b) are a fan of genre work and want to see dark done light. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD)
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