Director Carlo Ledesma’s subterranean spook-fest The Tunnel is an underground film in a literal sense — it is largely based in dilapidated tunnels and bunkers below metropolitan Sydney — and an above the ground film in a sense the local industry has never seen before.

The Tunnel’s unprecedented distribution strategy, in which it officially “opened” last week not in a cinema or a DVD shop but online and available for free to download from BitTorrent websites, could prove a game changer in an industry that has historically viewed online platforms in general and torrents in particular with fear and contempt.

In 2009 an alliance of Hollywood bigwigs including Sony Pictures and Warner Bros successfully prosecuted four Swedes behind the world’s most popular torrent site, The Pirate Bay, for $3.6 million in damages and a year a piece in prison. Just like the “end” of Napster, the case did virtually nothing to curb online pirating, the proverbial fart in a hurricane. There are countless websites to download torrents and tellingly, even The Pirate Bay is still alive and well and chocked to the gills with warez.

Through what the makers of The Tunnel have dubbed ‘The $135k Project’, the small team behind this shmick faux doco are boldly attempting to turn the problem into the solution. Pushed along by executive producer Andrew Denton, audiences are encouraged to download and share the film and — if they like it — buy a frame or a set of frames to support it. Each frame costs $1.

A deal was brokered with BitTorrent, which agreed to display a prominent link to the film to all new members downloading torrent software, estimated to be around 450,000 a day. In the first five days of The Tunnel’s internet release it generated over 75,000 downloads. Comparatively, the Australian film Snowtown opened on 16 screens across the country averaging 3-4 sessions a day. The difference, of course, is that people forked over 20 bucks a pop to see it.

At the time of writing less than 40,000 of the target 135,000 frames for The Tunnel have been purchased, the vast majority bought prior to release. It will be a slow burn before it becomes clear whether the strategy has worked and production, distribution and marketing wings of industry giants will be looking on with interest.

But hoopla about snazzy new distribution techniques means next to nada if the end result is bum numbing bunkum. Horror hooters and thrill seekers can rest assured that The Tunnel is the opposite — a visceral horror-umentary into sewers of cinematic spookiness that will infect even hardened genre aficionados with a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.

The film follows a team of four, led by investigative TV journalist Natasha Warner, who mount an unofficial exploration of abandoned tunnels underneath Sydney’s St James Train Station.

The NSW government unexpectedly scrapped plans to utilise the water in the tunnels and Warner wants to how why; her reputation as a journo hinges on it. There are urban myths floating around about something funny going on below – not in the water per se but in the dark decrepit arteries underneath the daily stream of commuters. The team find and interview a homeless man who says he’s lived there, and seen some things. It does not go smoothly.

Not long after they begin exploring the tunnels and searching for a story, well, as the marketing materials say – the story comes to them.

Taking the most primitive cues from The Blair Watch Project, the narrative is presented through a concoction of camcorder, security, interview and news footage. There’s a splash of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) in a scene in which we watch one of the subjects don a pair of headphones and listen to a shocking audio recording for the first time. There’s a touch of Lake Mungo (2008), in that two of the subjects – Warner and her camera man Steve Miller – give sombre-faced direct to camera interviews which anchor the film. And there are other clever “it’s real, man” touches: a Youtube clip; a news announcement from Peter Overington; a glimpse of Julia Gillard at a press conference.

The visual structure of The Tunnel dances between these framing devices and doesn’t carry the annoying wooziness of The Blair Witch Project, while still capitalising on the atmospheric benefits of flickering lights, wobbly handheld cams and well placed techno “glitches”.

There are a couple of blips in the realism early on; they’re small ones but in a film like this in which airtight verisimilitude is crucial, even the smallest pricks can disproportionately resonant. But at the heart of The Tunnel lies four unnervingly convincing performances, particularly from the two lead actors. They certainly needed to be — these are the characters who will shriek and squeal, collapse into a tears of regret and, most importantly, run, scramble and fight for their lives.

When the team go deeper and deeper into the tunnel net3work and slowly, along with the audience, comprehend the horrors that lie down there, Ledesma and co generate the dividends of the film’s clever multi-faceted ultra mod set-up. The scares are visceral, delivered with unnerving quickness, snubbing the horror genre’s penchant for cheap thrills provoked through overuse of fake-outs and cacophonous blasts of RAAAA! on the soundtrack. The Tunnel is smarter, scarier and edgier than that. It makes Paranormal Activity look like the tea cup ride at Disney Land.

Ledesma and co. have created a rare and exciting feature, inside and out. It has the potential to become both a classic cult film and an industry game changer, and although during these uncertain days the producers may be going to bed at night sweating bullets these are exciting times. Whichever way the pennies fall, whichever way the budget ledgers fill out, this much is for sure: The Tunnel is bold, gutsy and potentially ground-breaking.

For more information about The Tunnel, head over to the official website.

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