For those of you who were unable to check out the flick, you may want to consider turning back now and returning to this post after you've seen it. There's bound to be spoilers in the post and the comments, and I care so much that I don't want anything ruined for you. I avoided everything about The Descent save for the trailer prior to seeing it, and I think that was a good move. You can always come back later. Go on now, git! It's time for the cool kids to talk about
Oh my GOD, I'm so glad they're gone...can you believe what they were wearing?
OK, if you're still with me, then chances are I don't need to go into a huge rehashing of the plot. 6 women enter uncharted territory on a weekend spelunking expedition. When their route back to the surface is blocked by a cave-in, the women must find another way out. As they travel deeper into the blackness of the underground maze, they soon discover that there's something very horrible and very deadly lurking in the dark.
While it's easy to spot some of the influences writer/director Neil Marshall taps into (Deliverance, The Shining, and Alien, among others), The Descent is refreshingly original. Marshall has delivered a monster movie that's so much more than a monster movie; throughout the film, he expertly exploits some of the most primal universal fears- the dark, the unknown, and small spaces- to deliver a story that's as serious as it is terrifying.
Yep, I said serious. While there are a few tension-easing lighter moments here and there, this is not a horror/comedy. It's not a parody or a self-referential ironic effort sprinkled with jokes and zingy one-liners. OK, there's one- "I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider!"- but that line kicks ALOT of ass and you know it.
In fact, The Descent is so serious that it pays far greater tribute to the gritty horror classics of the 1970s than any other current film that purports to; you see, it's not the kids singing "Sweet Home Alabama" (as in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) or the helter-skelter gore and violence (House of 1000 Corpses) that capture the vibe in films like the original TCM. Those lame attempts smack of the superficial, and they nearly always miss their mark. Marshall's work recalls that of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper because on a base level Marshall knows how to craft a scary movie: he keeps the pace slow and he keeps things dark.
Visually, the film works because Marshall uses the underground setting to full effect, generally keeping it dark but also washing the screen with blues, greens and reds ...it's eerie, but it also serves to remind us of the beauty in places like this and maybe show us why anyone in their right mind would want to go caving in the first place. While The Descent takes place in the Appalachian mountains, the film was shot both on location in Scotland and on elaborate sets. With the exception of a few clunky CGI moments, I was hard pressed to find any fakery.
As I said yesterday, Carpenter's approach to storytelling is the slow-burn method that allows the tension to build to the breaking point- then he whales on us with the climax. Marshall takes that same approach here, and the result is a rich atmosphere dripping with dread. That's not to say there's nothing much happening in the film's first reel; rather, there are several jolts and shocks that had me involuntarily slapping my hands to my cheeks in a decidedly Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone fashion. No, I'm not exaggerating...and yes, I felt like an idiot. But it happened and there I was, a happy little simpleton having the time of my life while being creeped out of my mind.
I was just so damn happy to be watching a horror movie made for adults, starring adults. The female cast was definitely nice to look at, but there weren't any big Hollywood names or artificial Hollywood bodies. They were real women and, shock of shocks, they acted like women- not girls, not teenagers, and not cliches. Even more shocking was the fact that this group of friends acted like friends! What a novel fucking concept! There was the awkwardness and the snappish moments and things unsaid you get when friends don't see each other often, but all in all they got along and seemed to actually like one another. The characters were well-drawn, the acting was far above par, and for once I found myself wanting them all to survive this journey. Well, maybe with the exception of Holly...but I knew from the moment she was introduced that she'd be the first to die. It's a staple of the horror genre: don't be cocky and brash, because your cocky brashness will lead to a quick demise...or in Holly's case, a quick demise preceeded by a long interim of pain. Man, that leg break was nasty!
This brings us to the gore content: The Descent gets two great big "eww!"s up. Once things start to go to hell for our heroines, the movie gets downright grosstastic. There's biting, chewing, ripping, cutting, slicing, smashing, tearing...and by the end of it all, lone survivor Sarah is covered in enough blood to make Carrie look like an amateur.
The film was released in the UK in 2005 with a longer, different, slightly more downbeat ending. Check it out right here. Test audiences in the US preferred the idea that Sarah actually makes it out of the cave, but I wouldn't call it a happy ending by any stretch. While she may have eluded the physical dangers that brought down the rest of her group, any way you look at it it's obvious that Sarah is now completely 100% batshit insane. I dig a movie that has the balls to screw with our expectations like that, to make even the winner a loser; think Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Chris in Friday the 13th Part III. Sometimes making it out alive might not be the best option.
Hey! I finally picked a winner for the Film Club! Hooray for us all. I can't think of anything I didn't like about The Descent. We might just have a modern classic on our hands, kids. See? Maybe we should leave the house more often.
Here's the Film Club Coolies. Give them mad props, yo:
7 Dollar Popcorn
The Horror Blog