Scintilla follows a familiar pattern: a rag-tag group of hired guns are paid to infiltrate an underground facility, but are picked off one by one by unseen assailants.
Headed up by a tough but sad-eyed John Lynch (Sliding Doors), this team of mercenaries have to sneak Dr Healy (Morjana Alaoui) into a former Soviet bunker, past a heavily-armed militia. So far, so cliché. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Part heist, part Neil Marshall movie (think The Descent or Doomsday), Scintilla is an excellent example of genre-savviness done right. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that traveling half a mile under a Soviet bunker is a terrible idea, so what matters is how the movie chooses to illustrate the inevitable disaster.
The trick here is knowing which classic action/horror tropes to accept and which to ignore. Thankfully, the main cast is not reliant on stereotypes or stock characters. John Lynch’s Powell isn’t your average macho hero with a gun, and each of the supporting characters have their own story to tell. As the story progresses, we begin to learn that the mystery of this old Soviet bunker is linked with the relationship between Dr Healy and her former business partner, a geneticist played by Beth Winslet. This brings Scintilla’s total of interesting, well-written female characters up to four, which is (unfortunately) an impressive total for this type of movie.
Whoever scouted the locations for Scintilla should be given a pat on the back, because while this movie presumably didn’t have access to a Hollywood budget, its visuals are impressively atmospheric.
The overground militia fight scenes have the feel of a high-quality video game, leading to a jarring transition when our heroes finally make it into the Soviet inner sanctum. Aesthetically, this works very well, especially in the case of Beth Winslet’s Cold War-era costumes. Tonally, the transition isn’t quite so effective.
While the suspense holds up through the change from action to claustrophobic horror, the sudden introduction of alien-infused science fiction proves to be a step too far.
In a movie that relies upon the fear of mysterious creatures attacking from the shadows, a little exposition goes a long way. Sadly, the expository dialogue is far too frequent and in-depth, partly due to the eventual revelation of what was really going on in that Cold War bunker. But for fans of things like Alien and The Descent, Scintilla will prove to be a satisfyingly grimy underground horror flick.
Scintilla is screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 26.