Plot: malfunctioning elevator kills people in luxury office tower block.
It’s interesting to note that Belgium and the Netherlands never developed regional (exploitation or otherwise) cinematic industries of their own whereas their surrounding countries in continental Europe did. Belgium and the Netherlands frequently could be found co-producing with fellow countries but seldom produced genre cinema of their own. Whereas France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain and Spain were veritable forces in genre cinema Belgium and the Netherlands lagged behind as what little of a cinema industry they had relied heavily on government funding. Of the two the Netherlands had a stronger standing and more pronounced presence on the European cinematic map. As filmmaking was seen more of a cultural venture horror (and its adjacent genres) is generally shunned for all the obvious reasons. This necessitated brave producers and maverick directors to make the genre movies they wanted to see on their own. One of these entrepreneurial visionaries was a man by the name of Dick Maas. This, of course, begs the question: who exactly is Dick Maas?
Like any young writer/director Maas produced about half a dozen or so shorts in between 1975 and 1980 before finally directing his comedy debut Rigor Mortis (1981). He landed his first big break when he was offered the chance to direct the music video for ‘Twilight Zone’ from Dutch rock band Golden Earring. In between this and the filming of the Golden Earring live television special ‘Live from The Twilight Zone’ Maas directed the Matthijs van Heijningen produced De Lift (The Lift internationally). Van Heijningen specialized in respectable adaptations of classic Dutch literature and prestigious socially aware dramas. Filmed in 32 days on an estimated budget of ƒ 750.000,00 (€359,534.58 or $416,666.66 in today’s currency) this was the only horror van Heijningen ever produced. Maas’ formula was always to aim at the international market and that’s exactly what happened at Cannes in 1984 where De Lift became the first Dutch production to be picked up by Warner Brothers for North American distribution. This gave Maas the impetus and clout to make the broad comedy Flodder (1986) and the horror Amsterdamned (1988). Without Flodder (1986) there would be no Honneponnetje (1988). Maas duly remade his breakthrough hit in Hollywood as the English-language Down (2001) to little fanfare. Around these parts Maas is forever etched in our black heart with the holiday horror Sint (2010).
In the Kronenstede high-rise offices in Amstelveen four people die of suffocation in an elevator when the air condition malfunctions after a bolt of lightning hits the building. Technician Felix Adelaar (Huub Stapel) is dispatched to determine the exact cause and do the necessary repairs and maintenance where required. His superior Jongbloed (Luk van Mello) urges him to report with administrator Ravenstein (Piet Römer) and to exercise the utmost discretion as this is a most valued client. After the preliminary check-up Adelaar can find no immediate cause for the disturbance and briefs back to the company. When a blind man (Onno Molenkamp) falls to his death and a night porter (Jan Anne Drenth) ends up decapitated it attracts the attention of law enforcement. For the inspector (Siem Vroom) and detective Smit (Aat Ceelen) this is a pretty open-and-shut case as they write off both deaths as unfortunate accidents. The involvement of the police attracts the attention of Mieke de Beer (Willeke van Ammelrooy), a plucky reporter for the secular left-wing weekly Nieuwe Revu. She insinuates herself into Adelaar’s professional life and shares her findings. Before long Adelaar and de Beer are so absorbed by their investigation that Felix’ wife Saskia (Josine van Dalsum) and his in-laws (Guus Hoes and Arnica Elsendoorn) suspect he’s having an affair.
Quickly they discover that former technician Breuker (Ad Noyons) has been quietly locked away in a mental ward. According to his psychiatrist Kraayvanger (Serge-Henri Valcke) the husk of a man sank into catatonia after his accident and hasn’t uttered a word since. The two then contact a professor in computer sciences (Peer Mascini) to understand exactly what they’re dealing with. They uncover that multinational corporation Rising Sun handles the electronics and software and pay them an unscheduled visit in their nearest branch. There they are stoically rebuffed by the director of the national division Kroon (Hans Veerman). When Felix addresses his superior Jongbloed about his findings he’s reprimanded and placed on immediate leave for two weeks for conducting his own clandestine investigation. This convinces the duo that something is very wrong. Jongbloed secretly meets with Kroon to let him know someone is about to uncover their conspiracy and that he should cease his experiments immediately. Desperate for a solution Adelaar breaks into Kronenstede in hopes of finally putting an end to the elevator’s reign of terror.
For better or worse De Lift is quintessentially and uncomfortably 80s. The big hair, hideous fashion, the pink neon, and blaring synths – it’s all here. There are enough hues of red, green, and blue lighting to make you think Maas probably saw one or two Mario Bava movies in his day. The score during the restaurant scene does resemble the level music of an early Leisure Suit Larry videogame. That a silly horror movie like this tries to moonlight a cautionary tale about emergent technology is something else too. As such there’s an ungodly amount of important sounding technobabble. This is just about the last place you’d expect to hear a well-intended lecture about the inner workings of microprocessors, computer chips, A.I., and the then-latest advances in robotics, information technology and biomechatronics.
Not helping is that the entire thing is pervaded with the decade’s rampant technophobia (something which would extend into the early 90s virtual reality craze) and it attempts (however feebly) to make political commentary when it addresses corruption, the bribing of government officials, and the always fashionable corporate espionage. Huub Stapel was one of the popular leading men from around this time and Maas cast him frequently. The same goes for Willeke van Ammelrooy who, along with Monique van de Ven, Nora Tilley and Nelly Frijda, was much in-demand on both the big and the small screen. A decade before van Ammelrooy had starred in the French sex comedy Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack (1974). As near as we can tell this was the only Nederhorror feature that the late Piet Römer ever lend his considerable talent to. As the first real Maas feature there’s no Tatjana Šimić precursor and imported babes like Janet Ågren or Jillian Kessner were just too expensive. The simple (not to mention bloodless) practical effects by Leo Cahn and René and Robert Stouthamer evidenced that they were destined for international careers.
Huub Stapel, Hans Dagelet and Serge-Henri Valcke would all return for Amsterdamned (1988) five years later. In what retroactively could be called an ensemble cast there’s Monique van de Ven from De Johnsons (1992), Jules Croiset from Intensive Care (1991) and Bert Luppes who also would turn up in Sint (2010). Producer Matthijs van Heijningen had little faith in the project and as a cost-saving measure De Lift was filmed simultaneously with the drama Een zaak van leven of dood (1983). It also had a significant amount of product placement before that was a thing in Dutch cinema. Van Heijningen was convinced that his drama would do good business. As fate would have it De Lift became something of an overnight sensation and proved very lucrative at the box office in contrary to van Heijningen’s serious drama. Above and beyond anything else De Lift was the work of a visionary, a pioneer, an everyman who understood the whims of the common people better than anyone else. Perhaps it would be a bit much to call Dick Maas the Dutch Roger Corman or Jing Wong of the Lowlands. Far closer to the truth would be to call him the Netherlands’ own Pete Walker or Norman J. Warren. As horror was a genre not practiced in Belgium and the Netherlands very much or at all for the longest time De Lift was held up not only as the gold standard but as the very best Nederhorror had to offer. Not bad for an underestimated little fright flick….