Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Descent

When I first saw the movie poster for The Descent, I thought it looked pretty cool, but it seemed familiar.  With a little bit of research, I realized that this poster was modeled after a decently famous photograph by Phillipe Halsman, titled In Voluptas Mors.  Sure, Halsman's photo had naked ladies in it --- and, for some reason, (probably awesomeness) Salvador Dali --- so it is far superior, but that's a pretty cool homage to a cool photo.  Anyways...

The Descent opens with a group of adventuring girlfriends --- Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), and Beth (Alex Reid) --- whitewater rafting, with Sarah's husband and child cheering them on.  The group's fun finishes uneventfully, but this is a horror movie, so you know that can't last.  In fact, on the ride home, Sarah's car is involved in a crash that kills her husband and daughter.  Bummer.  A year later, the friends reunite in North Carolina to go spelunking.  Why are they spelunking in Appalachia?  Well, they're all European ladies, and they take trips together in cool natural areas around the (English-speaking) world.  For this trip, they and three more girlfriends decide to go caving in a fairly touristy spot, to take it easy on Sarah.  Well, "touristy" is subjective, since you have to rappel into the cave and bring your own pickaxes and lights.  Whatever, these dames are hardcore nature lovers.
Pictured above: Bad-ass chicks being unimpressed.
The caves are indeed as gorgeous as they are hard to get to, but Juno forgot the cave map.  That bums the group out a bit, but in a popular cave like this, they should have no problem finding their way around.  Sure enough, one of them finds a path to the next series of caverns.  Sure, it's a basically a tube with a three-foot radius, but if these women were claustrophobic, they wouldn't be caving, would they?  Good thing they aren't afraid of confined spaces, since the passage collapses right after they use it, so they are cut off from their entrance.  But there's a slight problem...this new cavern looks pretty imposing for a popular site.  It turns out that Juno lied to the group; the cavern system they are in is not the tourist trap they thought, but an unexplored and unnamed system.  That means that nobody knows where to look for them.  That means that they have no idea if there is a way out or not.  Way to go, Juno.  Bitch.  Why did she pull this stunt?  I'll let the movie rationalize that for you.  Here's the situation: a group of women are trapped in an unexplored cavern system with limited food and water, no means of communication, and no hope of rescue.  That sucks, right?  Well, it gets worse when they stumble across some C.H.U.D.s/morlocks/goblins/gross monster things. It turns out that the subterranean quasi-human creatures aren't terribly friendly, which is a nice way of saying "they want to rip your throat out with their teeth and bathe in your blood."
Now, turn around and say "Red light!"  It's worth a try, anyway.

I was really surprised by The Descent.  I knew little about it, aside from knowing that there were cave monsters and a pool o' blood, because both are shown on the DVD case for this movie.
Whoa...they go to a Gwar concert in this movie?!?
I naturally assumed that this was another cheesy Hollywood slasher movie, with dumb promiscuous teens finding new ways to die in caves.  I kind of expected it to be like The Ruins, which I have not seen (yet), but I assume is very stupid.  I was very, very wrong about The Descent.

First of all, this is an all-female European cast, and none of the characters are supposed to be in their teens.  Whaaaaat?  I know, right?!?  I wasn't particularly impressed by any of the acting in the movie, but none of it was bad.  The characters were just a little bland.  Shauna Macdonald did a fine job in the lead, transitioning from a damaged woman to a survivalist bad-ass, and Natalie Mendoza did a pretty good Michelle Rodriguez impression as the tough chick, but they were the only two stand-outs.  But let me reiterate: there is no bad acting in this horror film.  That is very cool.

Director Neil Marshall managed to make two movies for the price of one.  The first movie, which is very defined from the second one, is an atmospheric and realistic horror movie.  I am not claustrophobic, but I was made uncomfortable in several scenes as the cast wriggled their way through tight spaces.  The cinematography was extremely effective in these moments; I felt like I was trapped, too.  This would have been enough for most filmmakers; there is a more than serviceable survivalist/horror plot to be found with these women being trapped in unexplored caverns.  The second movie is the monster flick that takes over the second half of the film.  While it is certainly less subtle and original than the first half, the gory monster movie that is the second half of The Descent is surprisingly solid.  It doesn't reinvent the genre or anything, but the creatures look good and there isn't anything too stupid that manages to ruin the creepy vibe that the first half of the film worked so hard to establish.

Of course, with such an abrupt shift in tone, you can argue that The Descent suffers from too many ideas.  That is an entirely valid point.  This could have been a decent monster flick, or a potentially exceptional claustrophobic nightmare; instead, it did a little of both.  Personally, I think this was a better movie before the monsters showed up, but I have to admit that I the monsters made it more enjoyable; the dread I had in the first half of the film was relieved by the "well, it's not that plausible" nature of the second half.  I thought the monsters looked pretty good.  They were a little more mucus-y than I would have expected from creatures without an obvious water source, but I can live with that.  I'm glad that these creatures were naked, and not clothed like cavemen, because that would have been stupid.
Strategic knee placement?
Their sense of smell was not as effective as I would have thought vision-impaired creatures would require, but..."but" nothing, that was pretty dumb.  But what horror movie is flawless?

Despite the lack of a clear direction, The Descent bucks the odds and turns out to be a very entertaining horror flick.  I can't believe I'm writing this, but I enjoyed a horror movie with an all-female (and non-exploited) cast and a plot that switches from an effective, realistic threat to a ridiculous monster movie.  The monsters are of so little consequence to the plot that you could have substituted Jason Voorhies into the movie and I would have enjoyed it just as much (maybe a little more).  The important thing is that this is a low-budget horror gem that is a little creepy but still fun to watch.

1 comment:

  1. This is a film that really freaks me out. After starting out by establishing the genuine fears associated with such a place (fear of the dark, claustrophobia and heights) it brings out the monsters. Really effective horror. Nice review Brian.

    Welcome to the LAMB too BTW. For reviews of recent releases, classic films and festival coverage, check out my blog, Andy Buckle's Film Emporium (