Nyctophobia, or fear of the dark, is a near-universal phenomenon that has inspired stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Isaac Asimov; films by John Carpenter and Wes Craven; and even an album by Iron Maiden.
It takes center stage in “P2,” the bloody new thriller from Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, the French-born duo responsible for “High Tension” and a recent remake of “The Hills Have Eyes.” Joining them is first-time director Franck Khalfoun, who starred in “High Tension,” and while his technique may lack subtlety, it is far from ineffective.
The question is whether you care to find out for yourself. “P2” might have emerged, but for three stunningly brutal acts of violence, as a throwback to old-fashioned thrillers where mayhem was implied without being splattered across the screen. Mainly, it is a tense, claustrophobic tale of hide-and-go-seek, set in an underground parking garage ominously shrouded in shadow.
Angela (Rachel Nichols) is a corporate workaholic longing to spend a quiet evening with her family. Tom (Wes Bentley) is the lonely, delusional parking attendant who watches her, yearningly, from afar. They meet late one Christmas Eve when Angela's car won't start. He asks her to dinner, she politely declines. Tom bristles at the blow-off, and before long Angela finds herself chained to his desk.
The rest is easily guessed. Observing the tried-and-true conventions of the genre, Angela tries first to reason with her captor, then to escape him. She is cunning, clever, even diabolical when necessary, and Nichols handles her transition from prim professional to desperate prey with as much grace as possible. Bentley, on the other hand, escalates from creepy to hysterical, and his tantrums make him seem more petulant than terrifying.
Still, the real star is the garage itself, a subterranean torture chamber masterfully shot by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre. Exploring its pitch-black corridors and dimly lit dead-ends, “P2” playfully exploits our natural fear of the dark as well as any film in recent memory. Sure, it's lurid and overblown, relying on its lionhearted heroine never to play her most obvious escape card — the fire alarm — but for those with a taste for such silliness, it makes for a harrowing night at the movies.
Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley, Simon Reynolds
Written by Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun, Grégory Levasseur
Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes