Director – Jonathan King, Screenplay – Matthew Grainger & Jonathan King, Based on the Novel by Maurice Gee, Producers – Richard Fletcher, Matthew Grainger & Jonathan King, Photography – Richard Bluck, Music – Victoria Kelly, Visual Effects Supervisor – Charlie McClellan, Visual Effects – Digital Post (Supervisor – Paul Dickson), Goodlight Pictures, PRPVFX (Supervisor – George Ritchie), 3DCGI (Supervisor – John Shiels), Special Effects Supervisor – Brendon Durey, Miniatures, Creature & Makeup Effects – Weta Workshop (Creative Designer & Supervisor – Steve Boyle, Makeup Effects Supervisor – Sarah Lyttle, Design and Effects Supervisor – Richard Taylor), Production Design – Ralph Davies & Kim Sinclair. Production Company – New Zealand Film Commission/NZ On Air/Footprints Investment LLP/120db Films/Fulcrum Media Finance/Index Films/Liberty Films/RedHead Films Limited
Tom Cameron (Theo Matheson), Sophie McBride (Rachel Matheson), Sam Neill (Mr Jones), Oliver Driver (Mr Wilberforce), Leon Wadham (Ricky), Chelsea McEwan-Miller (Clementine), Matthew Chamberlain (Uncle Cliff), Michaela Rooney (Aunt Kay), Nathaniel Lees (Detective Gray), Nathan Meister (Johan/Lenart), Bruce Hopkins (Richard Matheson)
Teenage twin brother and sister Theo and Rachel Matheson are shattered by the death of their mother. With their father having difficulty coping, they are sent away to stay with their Uncle Cliff and Aunt Kay on the shore of Lake Pupuke in Auckland. Theo meets the strange Mr Jones and then finds a book containing a photo that shows Jones apparently alive in the 19th Century. The twins become fascinated by the decaying old house across the lake and the sinister Wilberforce family who live there. They venture inside the house, finding it overgrown with hideous organic shapes. While there, they overhear the Wilberforces plotting to kill the two of them. As the Wilberforces come after them, revealing they are not human but creatures made of tentacles, the twins receive aid from Mr Jones. He reveals that the Wilberforces are aliens that came to Earth centuries ago in league with massive Gargantua creatures. Jones is also from an alien race and his people trapped the Gargantua beneath the seven volcanoes of Auckland. They and the Wilberforces can only be destroyed by twins throwing two stones that contain the last of Jones’s people’s power into the volcano. As the twins begin to realise the power the stones give them, the Wilberforces do everything they can to kill them.
Maurice Gee is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors. Publishing since the 1960s, Gee has produced a body of work that is regarded as part of the country’s literary heritage. In between more serious works, Gee has dabbled in science-fiction and fantasy, specifically books for children, which include Under the Mountain (1978), The World Around the Corner (1980), The Halfmen of O (1982) and sequels, and Salt (2007) and sequels. Even if it is not the best of Maurice Gee’s children’s works, Under the Mountain is probably the most remembered, principally due to a six-episode tv mini-series Under the Mountain (1981) made of the book by Television New Zealand. (This was incidentally the very first science-fiction work made for television within New Zealand). Other non-genre Maurice Gee works have been adapted to film, with acclaimed, high profile film adaptations of non-genre works like Fracture (2004) and In My Father’s Den (2004) in recent years, while Gee had earlier written the scripts for the crime drama Trespasses (1984) and Undercover Gang (1986) based on another of his children’s books.
This film remake of Under the Mountain comes from Jonathan King. It was Jonathan King’s second film, following the moderate cult hit of his splatter film Black Sheep (2006), as well as the script for The Tattooist (2007). A modest hit in New Zealand, Under the Mountain played several international festivals but mostly went to dvd. Almost certainly, Jonathan King is one of the generation of New Zealanders who grew up on the tv version of Under the Mountain – he would have been fourteen at the time the original tv mini-series aired. One suspects that the reason for the film’s popularity is not its greatness as a story but something akin to the Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005– ) factor – that the chintzy monsters and low production values of the tv version held something alternately thrilling and scary that was an essentially remembered part of some people’s childhoods.
As a film, Under the Mountain emerges onto the screen reasonably well. Jonathan King and co-writer Matthew Grainger have tightened the plot somewhat. All three versions of the story have the essential problem that they are chase stories that involve the twins running around being pursued from location to location by the Wilberforces and are thinly plotted outside of that. Though Under the Mountain is nominally a science-fiction story, Maurice Gee writes it more as though it was a fantasy story – where the twins are guided by a wizard figure and must use stones that essentially operate as magic to harness earthpower and defeat the evil goblins. During the early scenes, Jonathan King foreshadows the prominence of the volcanoes in a way that tends to overkill – for much of the early part of the film, there is hardly a scene that goes by where we do not have some volcano reference dropped or one seen in the background.
Jonathan King is a principally a horror director. Black Sheep was premised around a series of novelty gore and splatter effects. Similarly, King has conceived Under the Mountain as largely a vehicle for creature and goo effects. These are undeniably accomplished, thanks to Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. There is the wonderfully ick image of an entire car built with organic insides. One of the film’s highlights is where one of the Wilberforces invades the house pretending to be a cop, melting through the lock attachment with his tentacle and then Sophie McBride is left hanging off the interior balcony by its tentacle, neatly avoiding it by slipping out of the sleeve of her jacket. Much of the show is stolen by Oliver Driver’s performance as Mr Wilberforce where he plays with a ghoulishly gravely intonation as though he really does come from another world. The two actors playing the twins, Tom Cameron and especially Sophie McBride, are well cast.
Jonathan King subsequently went onto make the science-fiction film Realiti (2014) about brainwashing drugs.