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Dark Passages: The Films of Dick Maas

Dark Passages: The Films of Dick Maas

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Feature by: Rumsey Taylor, Leo Goldsmith, Thomas Scalzo, Jenny Jediny, and Adam Balz

Posted on: 31 October 2007

Alston W. Purvis, in his well-regarded profile of Dutch graphic design, describes The Netherlands and its inhabitants accordingly:

Twenty-seven percent of the land is below sea level, and from as early as the twelfth century this generated a perpetual need to sustain an intricate network of dikes, bridges, aqueducts, dams, windmills, and canals. … To a large extent, the very existence of the Dutch depended on their mastery of natural forces, and for this reason perfection, exactness, computation, order and planning for the future have all become part of the Dutch consciousness.

As the above quote makes clear, the Dutch are pursuers of perfection, an incentive that extends to their artistic endeavors. In fact, it is a culture so devoted to simple, unambiguous exactitude that it is capable of reinterpreting even the most fundamental of ideas — such as apple pie — in a way that is unambiguously Dutch. Appropriately, this brings us to our final day of horror, and our examination of the Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas.

For over twenty-five years this Netherlands’ native son has been producing, writing, directing, and scoring films of some variety, four of which fall into the horror/thriller category and will serve as the focus of our overview: The Lift, 1983; Amsterdamned, 1988; Silent Witness, 1999; and The Shaft, 2001. (We humbly and regrettably admit that Maas’ 1981 short film, Rigor Mortis, was not located in time for this feature.) From fetid canals to glitzy high rises, the physical aspects of his home city of Amsterdam repeatedly inform Maas’s work (save for The Shaft, based in New York City), at once serving to ground his films in the believable everyday world, display how the everyday can be horrifying, and present a distinctly Dutch take on the horror/thriller genre.

Of course, to the words “distinctly Dutch” we must append a caveat: for Maas’ cinematic vision is, at least in part, a Dutch reinterpretation. Maas’ work immediately encourages comparisons to John Carpenter, more in terms of auterusim than in terms of aesthetics. And this comparison is liberally extendable: Maas forwards suspense in simple, synthesizer-driven scores of his own composition, regularly favors reprised episodes of suspense, and even has a stoic, masculine muse by the name of Huub Stapel—a Dutch Kurt Russell, albeit with more pathos and less muscle.

Our comparison to John Carpenter is, however, a superficial one. More appropriate, perhaps, is one to Michael Bay, in regard to aesthetics. Maas, like Bay, renders his action set pieces as a child would action figures from different franchises: populating the scene with so many discordant elements so as to render it at once highly ridiculous and abstracted, a canvas with so many conflictive brush strokes that its details become lost and irrelevant.

Despite these obvious influences, however, and there are doubtless others, there is an undercurrent running throughout Maas’ work that is removed from any reinterpretation, and which qualifies as quintessentially of The Netherlands. As Purvis notes, “perfection, exactness, computation, order and planning for the future have all become part of the Dutch consciousness.” In other words, the Dutchman is practical, concerned with maintaining the regular workings of that which perpetuates everyday life.

Accordingly, Maas is generally an advocate of the workingman, his characters not larger-than-life leading men, but ordinary, regular people, compelled to deal with irregular circumstances. Instead of aliens, supernatural ninjas, unstoppable ghosts, or legendary bogeymen, we have elevators and run-of-the-mill (and entirely human) killers. And although Maas’ films contain certain fantastic elements, they are nevertheless always grounded in a physical reality. The elevators in The Lift (as well as in its 2001 remake, The Shaft) may be evil, but they are inseparably connected to the landscape, and an everyday part of the city. (And technically, the elevators are not inherently, or supernaturally, evil but infused with diabolical tendencies by human agents.) The canals too, though housing a nefarious assailant, are an unavoidable part of the land, an intrinsic aspect of Amsterdam. For Maas, it is these elements, almost taken for granted because of their ubiquitousness, that hold a source of terror. That is his vision—the horrors of the world are not the stuff of magic, nightmares, or far-off lands. They exist in our own backyards, in the mundane, waking moments of the everyday.

The charm, then, of a Dick Maas film ultimately lies in a combination of the hackneyed and the original. In The Lift, for example, the industrious Felix Adelaar sets forth to resolve the issue of elevators that may be killing their passengers; the uniqueness of the killer notwithstanding, such sleuthing is not uncommon in horror films. But Maas supplants Felix’s amateur investigation with several lengthy depictions of his failing home life. Oddly, this is one of the more compelling aspects of the film, that Maas devotes such attention, and therefore significance, to a plot detail that’s largely irrelevant to the central mystery, and this focus lends his work an overall discordance that we find charming. To further this discordance, all of Maas’ films enjoy light-hearted suspense, intertwined with generous dollops violence, culminating as a curious meld of the playful and the profane. Although seemingly unlikely candidates for Halloween viewing, the spirit of the Maas horror/thriller cannon – consistently balancing the thrilling with the lighthearted, the crucial with the irrelevant – is shared in many of the more recognized careers in the genre. As such, Maas’ work is totally appropriate, even if unfamiliar, fodder for the holiday.

Introduction by Thomas Scalzo and Rumsey Taylor


The Lift 30 October
Amsterdamned 30 October
Silent Witness 30 October
The Shaft 30 October
An Interview with Dick Maas 13 January

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