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‘The Divide’ / ‘Bellflower’

The world will end on a shoestring budget

by Giovanni Fazio

Shibuya’s Theater N may not exactly fit the definition of a grindhouse — its polite staff and lack of dodgy-looking stains on the seats rule that out — but any cinema doing a late-show revival of 1978′s notorious “I Spit on Your Grave” earns the comparison. Theater N has been getting good mileage lately out of a repertoire of edgy low-budget/indie horror and rock docs, combined with the occasional offbeat art film.

My girlfriend dragged me down there to see the documentary on hard-luck Hole drummer Patty Schemel, “Hit So Hard,” last month, and when the preview for “The Divide” came up, we were both blown away. Now, previews are notorious for suckering you into lousy films — anyone seen “Dark Shadows” yet? — but I’m happy to report that “The Divide” mostly delivers on its promise of a postapocalyptic panic thriller.

The premise is simple enough: A nuclear device is triggered in an unnamed Western city. A mass of terrified people flee for the safety of their building’s basement before the spreading blast hits them. Only a few make it in before the superintendent bars the door shut. The jittery survivors scream as they hear the building above them collapse. With the radioactive cloud and rubble and God knows what else happening on the surface, they realize they will be trapped down there for the long term. Let the mind games and power struggles begin.

The film captures the same claustrophobic fear and mounting desperation that marked George Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead,” albeit minus the zombies. The “loose nuke” that caused the disaster is all too believable, as are the reactions of those trapped in the basement, ranging from gibbering breakdown to hard-nosed pragmatism. The film hits a second peak of intensity when help arrives at last … and it turns out to have a different, less than helpful agenda.

The cast is your typical mix of past-their-prime Hollywood actors — Rosanna Arquette as a grieving mom forced into sexual slavery, and a cigar-chomping Michael Biehn (“The Terminator”) channeling vintage Kurt Russell as the survivalist superintendent — and scenery-chewing B-listers and TV actors such as Michael Eklund and Milo Ventimiglia.

Director Xavier Gens is perhaps best known for the French torture-porn flick “Frontier(s),” but “The Divide” is a huge improvement. It’s certainly not one for the squeamish — how does one dispose of rotting corpses in a sealed-off basement? — but the chills and suspense are psychological as often as not. The film winds up with a very bleak view of human nature, with a “Lord of the Flies”-informed belief that people will revert to atavistic behavior under stress — which is more haunting than any hatchet-wielding nutter.

While “The Divide” looks at survivors coping with the end of the world, independent U.S. flick “Bellflower” follows a couple of beer-swilling slackers who can’t wait for it to arrive. Writer/director Evan Glodell’s debut examines a couple of otherwise aimless 20-somethings named Woodrow and Aiden (Glodell and Tyler Dawson) who have followed their childhood dream of building a flame-throwing monster car like the one in “Mad Max,” so that when Armageddon comes, they will rule the wasteland like Lord Humongous.

“Bellflower” is certainly one of a kind, aiming to be a sort of “Breathless” for the “Jackass” generation. (And the film’s meet-cute between Woodrow and bad-girl Milly, played by Jessie Wiseman, occurs at a bug-eating contest.) This low-budget blood-soaked mumblecore film was much hyped at the Sundance and South by Southwest festivals, primarily for its saturated, tilt-shift cinematography — the film looks like it was shot on Hipstamatic — and its cartoonishly apocalyptic view of a broken heart.

A closer look, though, reveals little more than wannabe tough-nut guys who can’t manage more than three words without interjecting “dude!” and whose reaction to being cheated on is the kind of stuff that gets you slapped with a restraining order in real life. Dysfunctional relationships, a hipster fascination with pop-culture detritus, and some nihilistic violence all set to a soundtrack of off-key freak-folk warbling will certainly earn you indie cred these days. What it doesn’t get you, however, is a film worth watching.

Love sucks and then you die: Now there’s a generational statement for all the young dudes ticked off at their “stupid bitches.” Other demographics may be less receptive to the movie’s dubious charms.