Low budget filmmakers are told to use what they can get, writing their screenplays around what locations they can afford. Reservoir Dogs was made by a director (Quentin Tarantino) who knew he couldn’t afford to shoot a heist movie so he worked out a way to show everything but the heist. Sure, there’s a bit of footage here and there giving us the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong as well as a couple of shots of a shootout with the cops, but it basically avoids any other action at all. Tarantino has his characters talk, which is obviously cheaper than watching them in caper mode.
Well what if a director wanted to make another type of genre film and he went about in the same way as a Michael Mann type director would, but on 1/1000 of the budget? There’s the sneaky way that Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi on $7,000, shooting without sound, using actors for only a few hours at a time so he could avoid feeding them, being the only crewmember other than the lead actor (who you make a co-producer so he has to be on set, so he has an economic interest in not being paid), editing the movie, writing the music, etc. And there’s what Dick Maas did for his $250,000 first feature film, The Lift. Clearly, Maas wanted to make a police procedural, but without the money to film car chases or have tons of locations, he simply changed the occupation of his protagonist. Now, instead of a detective, the main character, Felix Adelaar, is an elevator mechanic. And instead of a serial killer to chase, he avoids the chases altogether by turning the serial killer into an elevator.
Oh, sure, all of the standard scenes are still there, such as being chewed out by the clueless boss who tells him to stay away from the perp (the elevator). There’s even the troubled family life that’s constantly interrupted by late night calls about work, except instead of a stake-out or an interrogation, he has to inspect elevator parts*. There’s the nerdy professor who gives us all the exposition, explaining how evil the killer is, going into past history and motivations. But in this case, the details have to do with wayward microchips. There’s the nosy reporter (“oh, yes, I’ve seen your newspaper in the cat litter box”) trying to get a scoop who gets involved in the cop’s personal life, but because this guy just fixes elevators she seems kind of bored throughout.
Maas is even clever enough to bypass the need for the police in a story about people being murdered. Yes, the cops are background characters who are portrayed as unfathomably lazy (one of them is happy that they wrapped up the case, or so he thinks, because it means he’ll get to have his vacation uninterrupted), but Felix, despite being repeatedly questioned by the journalist about why he won’t tell the police everything he knows, says that he can’t. At first it might seem he’s being stubborn for the sake of moving the plot forward, but then you have to realize that what he’d have to tell the cops is that he has a hunch that the elevator he’s been working on is possessed and that’s why so many people are dying. Tobe Hooper wasn’t this smart when he made The Mangler, about an industrial laundry press that kills people. The detective in that case (Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) had to take this supernatural notion seriously.
Neither Hooper nor Maas should have taken their material seriously, but outside of the premise, which would only amount to about five minutes of screen time that might be helpful for an effects man to put on his reel, they had to fill in backstory. Maas seems to making an ode to a Giallo (stylish Italian serial killer movies from the 1970s, such as Suspiria), which would at least excuse how sloppy the storytelling and dialogue is. The Giallos were notoriously poor in terms of coherence, and often had shock endings that come out of left field and make little sense. Maas gives us a whole bunch of family strife, the jealous wife who thinks her husband is cheating with the comely reporter, simply because one of her judgmental friends sees them having a meal together (the entire film is endlessly sexist, all women are gullible dopes), and then doesn’t resolve it. The elevator is far more important to him so when that business is done, so is the movie.
And though he might have been ambitious, Maas, who also wrote the synth-heavy, John Carpenter-esque score, he wasn’t necessarily organized or competent. The decapitation promised in the poster, which shows so much promise is incredibly, silly looking. The explanation for why the elevator does what it does is completely confusing, as it might be some sort of corporate conspiracy, or some alien goo, or lightning, or a microchip that’s so small that it re-programs itself… Any one of these would have sufficed, but Maas, as if inspired by one of his corporate sponsors, IKEA, builds the whole film out of spare parts and doesn’t worry about what’s left over. Apparently Maas had wanted to explain the origin of the elevator’s evil, but ran out of money (though he didn’t do a good job with the material in his 2001 American remake The Shaft), and just left the whole thing ambiguous. It would explain why the second act of The Lift is almost entirely comprised of the family drama (in this case domestic bliss = boredom = trouble) and long winded technical explanations of how elevators work, as if he had intended to clear it all up at the end, or maybe at least justify why the professor won’t stop talking about how a microchip can reproduce.