CUBE **** Canada 1997 Dir: Vincenzo Natali. 90 mins.
A dynamic TWILIGHT ZONE-esque concept effectively crafted for feature length, this has a small group of disparate characters removed from their everyday lives and placed in a huge, constantly revolving elaborate cube structure – rigged with a series of deadly booby traps. Mathematically gifted schoolgirl Nicole de Boer is joined by a paranoiac, an infamous prison escapee known as “The Wren” and a nihilist involved in the cube’s external design – all on a quest to find some kind of exit. A modest production that makes the most of its own limitations, this sustains considerable claustrophobic tension as the unpredictable narrative unfolds, keeping us guessing right up until the surprising denouement. A couple of performances are shakier than others (notably Nicki Guadigni as an ill-fated conspiracy theorist) but De Boer (the heroine of PROM NIGHT 4: DELIVER US FROM EVIL) and Maurice Dean Wint – as the obligatory mentally fracturing member of the group – are excellent. The movie offers only tantalising hints about the cube’s origins and purpose, leaving the sequels to flesh out some of the ambiguities. A prominent influence on the seemingly endless cycle of SAW-era survivalist horror movies confining an ill-fated ensemble to an elaborate sequence of death-traps, this remains one of the best of its type. It also prefigures the early 21st century trend in American horror for creatively gruesome death set pieces, including an early slice-and-dice and a bravura acid-face gag. And the “Cube” itself predates the current worldwide fad of escape rooms. Natali, making his feature debut, continued to make thoughtful, inventive genre pictures (the best known of which was SPLICE), and in recent years has worked in outstanding TV series like HANNIBAL, WEST WORLD and AMERICAN GODS.
CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE *** Canada 2002 Dir: Andrzej Sekula. 94 mins
Largely replicating the scenario of CUBE, this straight-to-DVD sequel misses its novelty factor but succeeds in reproducing its claustrophobic, mounting paranoia. Cinematographer-turned-director Sekula (who shot RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION) brings a strong visual sense to an identical story: a bunch of people wake up trapped within a four-dimensional hyper-cube, dominated by repeating rooms that fold into each other. Among the group are psychotherapist heroine Kari Matchett; a wounded, suicidal Department of Defence worker; a blind teenage girl (Grace Lynn King); a computer game designer and a bonkers, retired theoretical mathematician (Barbara Gordon) who initially thinks they’re in a gym. The characters ponder aloud if they’re part of a weird gameshow or involved in a quantum teleportation experiment or in Hell itself. Subsequent television shows like LOST (2004-2010) would pivot around the similarly enigmatic entrapment of otherwise unrelated protagonists. The movie refuses to offer all the answers and sustains itself as a good-looking mind-fuck as the characters lose mental capacity, parallel realities converge, and CGI devices dismember the lesser protagonists at regular intervals. Characteristic of the series, the ending is enjoyably sour.
CUBE ZERO *** Canada / USA 2004 Dir: Ernie Barbarash. 97 mins
The final CUBE movie (to date) is a prequel that simultaneously offers more of the same (another group of strangers trapped within a rigged, deadly structure) while hinting at the motivations behind the cube’s existence. This alternates between the characters inside the cube and those observing them – the imperilled being condemned prisoners who volunteered for the experiment as an alternative to the death penalty. Weakened by one-note performances (including a hammy, one-eyed villain), this is significantly grislier than the tense but comparatively tame HYPERCUBE. The deaths are the most gruesome of the series, starting with a marvellous bit of pre-SAW sadism as a beleaguered shmuck is hosed down with what appears to be some welcome water before his skin starts melting off and his body dissolves into a bloody mess. Prefiguring a range of later movies (including THE BELKO EXPERIMENT and ESCAPE ROOM), those encased within the cube are coolly observed by a mysterious pair of chess-playing, bickering, bored clock-watching employees who comment on the unfolding action like surrogate members of the moviegoing audience (“This is sick…”). Released in the same year as the first SAW movie, it has juicy dicings and a show-stopping exploding head.
Reviews by Steven West