Deep Fear (2022)
Directed by Grégory Beghin
Screenplay by Nicolas Tackian
Starring Blaise Afonso, Olivier Bony, Léone François-Janssens, Sofia Lesaffre, Kassim Meesters, Victor Meutelet, Joseph Olivennes, & Philippe Résimont.
Horror / Thriller
★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay
Shield thine eyes,
or be forever spoilt.
Grégory Beghin’s Deep Fear is ever so slightly familiar, only because The Depraved a.k.a Urban Explorer (2011) had a similar plot, but Beghin’s film is far more complex because it uses urban exploration and hidden historical secrets to craft a claustrophobic tale of terror. Deep Fear starts briefly in Paris during 1989 when a graffiti artists hears strange things underground where they’re tagging a wall, and they find something horrific is living down there. Jump to 1991: Henry (Victor Meutelet) is being conscripted into the military, so his friends—Sonia (Sofia Lesaffre) and Max (Kassim Meesters)—take him out for a fun weekend before he leaves. They wind up hanging with a guy Sonia’s met recently, Ramy (Joseph Olivennes), who offers to take them on an urban exploration adventure below the streets of Paris. First, the group run into a gang of neo-Nazis, though luckily escape. Unfortunately for them they then get lost and wind up coming upon a legendary hidden bunker from World War II housing much darker, more dangerous Nazi secrets.
Although what the group discovers in the Nazi bunker below Paris could’ve been given more backstory, it serves as an allegory, in combination with the gang of neo-Nazis the group accidentally cross, for the hidden hatreds and racisms that continue to linger just barely beneath the surface of so-called civil society. While the whole group winds up being hunted, it’s Sonia who becomes a beacon for the hatred of the neo-Nazis and the greater darkness lurking in the bunker, due to the fact she’s not white, or, specifically as the neo-Nazis perceive her, mixed race.
Deep Fear is largely a standard survival horror-thriller set underground in a claustrophobic space, something there’s been plenty of in the genre to the point it’s a sub-genre unto itself within horror. At the same time, Nicolas Tackian’s screenplay takes the film beyond standard fare with sociopolitical undertones, utilising France’s dark history of collaboration with the Nazis, and its brutal history of colonialism in Algeria, as a vessel to tell a larger story about the endurance of extreme right-wing views that aren’t even concealed anymore; this resonates far beyond Paris, and France as a whole, given the sociopolitical state of the world today.
For those who don’t know, conscription still existed in France during 1991, which is why Henry’s headed off for military service. There’s much more importance to this because the need for conscription in France was at least partly tied to the country’s ‘colonial commitments.’ Henry’s conscripted military service looming in the film is an interesting addition to the themes already at play with Sonia being from France while simultaneously having connections elsewhere due to her ancestry. A neo-Nazi asks Sonia if one of her parents is white and if the other is Algerian; this loaded line brings up a whole bunch of nasty history tied to France’s violent colonisation of Algeria.
All this works even further with a reference to Georges-Eugène Haussmann while the group is underground. Haussmann’s rebuilding and redesign of Paris doubled as a method to stamp out any civil unrest and/or armed uprisings, giving the army wide streets through which to navigate and less cramped space for people to setup barricades (etc). The redesign also forced rents up and pushed the low-income/poor Parisians to the outer suburbs. Paris is a militarised city, right down to its design, but it’s also a space designed to segregate.
In Deep Fear, the sewers and catacombs of Paris are where the extreme views have been segregated, though, as the neo-Nazis illustrate, they seep up out of the ground all too often. When talking about the neo-Nazis, one of the older cataphiles—catacombs enthusiasts—the group meets underground tells them: “They‘ve always been here, even twenty years ago.” This older cataphile acknowledges the endurance of extreme views just beneath the surface of society, and this lends to how, at certain times in history, those views bubble up above it. 1991 is an especially interesting time for the main action in Deep Fear to be set, considering the fervour of French nationalists at the time. ’91 was the same year Jacques Chirac gave his famous “Le bruit et l’odeur” speech, in which he spoke about the French worker versus the ‘overdose’ of immigrants, then implied that immigrants were all on welfare; the typical white nationalist playbook. So, really, the ugliness was never far below the surface; it was barely ever contained at all.
There’s smart uses of Nazi history throughout Deep Fear which call on several smaller facts about the Nazis, as well as Hitler himself, some of which not everybody may know like other more mainstream WWII history. The big reveal of the group having wandered into a bunker comes when Max, smoking a cigarette, notices a German sign that reads ‘Rauchen Verhoien’ (very roughly translating to ‘No Smoking’). This and the Nazi swastikas Max noticed before make him realise the group’s uncomfortable situation. What’s interesting here is that the ‘No Smoking’ sign in the bunkers came from Hitler himself, who was staunchly anti-smoking, so much so the Nazi Party ran strong campaigns against smoking because it threatened the health of the ‘chosen volk (people).’
A little later there’s an even more niche use of Nazi history when we see a mention of Pervitin, a drug given to German soldiers before battle, similar to the Viking berserkers of ancient times. Pervitin was an early form of what we know today as meth. When it comes to Pervitin and the experiments with it using Nazi soldiers, Deep Fear draws on the hidden, or buried, history of the Nazis for elements of its plot.
A gruesome, albeit fantastic scene in the film comes when Sonia’s confronted with the old, horrific Nazi deep in the bunker and she somewhat reverses the famous cinematic racist curb stomping in American History X, and it nearly gives her the power to escape the horrors, and the horrific history, of France’s ugly racism buried barely below the surface. Except that doesn’t go exactly how she planned. The film’s ending is a grim conclusion, yet it reflects the state of our world, as we see more fascist leaders come to power and other populist fascist demagogues try to throw their arm around angry white folks. People in vulnerable communities remain under threat to these disgusting worldviews. The racism that used to be buried further down in Western society—though never that far, in reality—has rapidly fought its way back into the light and it continues to grow like a fungus. All we can do is be like Sonia and try to stomp out the problem. Let’s just hope that we, as society, unlike Sonia, can crawl back out of the sewers intact when the job is done.