The Passage (2007) dir. Mark Heller
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Neil Jackson, Sarai Givaty
In this day and age, it’s difficult to inject new life into the horror genre. Mark Heller’s debut does just that. “The Passage” tells the story of two young men traveling abroad in Morocco who take the day trip from hell into the secluded Atlas mountains. Heller manages to find new ways of scaring us by putting the audience in a locale we’ve never seen before and playing on new millennium fears of global tourism and religious culture shock.
“The Passage” begins innocently as the film establishes the characters of Luke (Stephen Dorff) and his British pal, Adam (Neil Jackson) – two typical 20-something tourist/backpackers currently living in Morocco. Adam is the late night party animal, while Luke is reserved one. Luke has come to Morocco to escape the grief of his recently deceased girlfriend. One night Luke meets an impossibly gorgeous local girl named Zahara (Sarai Givaty). They hit it off and start a courtship over the course of the next few days. Because of the strict religious culture the two are sure to be very careful with their public displays of affection.
The two take a trip into the Atlas Mountains to get away from the city and spend the night in a small stone hut for the evening. In the middle of the night Luke discovers a series of elaborate pathways that run underneath the ground and connect to all the huts in the region. Luke’s curiosity urges him forward into the darkness, where something evil awaits.
“The Passage” tells a familiar story with both traditional and familiar methods. Heller takes a page from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” by misdirecting us as what the film may or may not be. The romance of Luke and Zahara, which takes up the first half of the second act, is well told. Often in horror films, the establishment of the characters and their relationships are perfunctory plotting devices before launching into the bloodletting. But if “The Passage” continued on as a relationship film across the expansive Moroccan lands I would have kept watching and been completely content. But when Luke discovers the ‘passage’ in his hut the film moves into dark, horror territory and my relaxed sitting posture just got a little more tense.
I was reminded of the first half of “The Descent” which effectively used total darkness and echoing sounds to create the sense of fear of the unknown. Heller gives Luke a great device for him to see in the darkness. He uses the flash from his still camera to see what’s in front of him. “The Descent” used the nightvision function of a camcorder to project a similar feeling. The result is a visual escalation of suspense from each snapshot, which we expect, sooner or later, will reveal something sinister.
Neil Jackson, who plays Adam, actually wrote the film. He is great as the party-loving British hooligan, but it’s Stephen Dorff who shines as the beleaguered young man. He’s plays the broken soul so well, which is why his relationship with Zahara works.
It’s also refreshing to see the horror play out strictly as psychological horror and not resort to gore. I think audiences were in agreement that the first half of “The Descent” which exploited our clausterphobic fear of dark places was better than the “Aliens-like” second half. Heller doesn't make that mistake.
The last act which brings Adam back into the story is a brilliant second act turn. The urgency of events is suddenly raised which leads to the dramatic final events. You’ll probably find the last few scenes at the end unnecessary. A more powerful ending would have been on the cut-to-black at the 85min mark – anyone who’s seen the film will know what I mean. Heller also mishandles the few flashbacks in the film. Who knows - whichever distributor picks it up might do work some scissorhands on it and make it an even better film.
“The Passage” is a great refreshing entry into the genre. His concept is so simple yet effective - something, as a filmmaker, made me shake my head and say, ‘why didn’t I think of that’. Enjoy.