Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Descent

(2005) ****1/2

In my effort to gear up for the Horrorthon (2 weeks, 3 days, people!), I’m reviewing some of my recent theater experiences. I saw Descent 3 weeks ago today, but it’s still pretty fresh in my head.

First off, this “adventure in the wilderness goes wrong” kind of movie is a kind I usually avoid. A number of people have asked if I’ve watched Open Water for the contest, to which I respond with a resounding “meh.” Maybe it’s because I don’t want real-world conflicts in my fiction (“based on true events” is never a hook for me). I also cringe at horror movies that rely heavily on their characters arguing with each other during a survival situation, although that kind of drama can succeed if the characters are done right. The arguing in Night of the Living Dead is annoying, the arguing in Shaun of the Dead means something, since they take the time to let us get to know the group.

That said, I probably would’ve skipped The Descent if it hadn’t been so overwhelmingly recommended. It turned out that none of my pre-set gripes had any purchase with this nasty piece of work.

This review is spoiler-heavy, so if you haven’t seen it I recommend you wait before going further.

Good news item #1, the characters come to life pretty damn fast. We see the main players Sarah, Beth and Juno right before and right after Sarah’s husband and daughter are killed in a rather brutal car accident. Certain deft clues are already being laid down, obscured by good news item #2: Neil Marshall’s excellent sense of horror timing. I was impressed by the editing and camera work throughout, and we get a nice taste early on when Sarah's running down the hospital corridor trying to outrun the ceiling lights turning off. I knew it wasn't really happening, but still...very effective.

Cut to one year later and our three ladies are joined by three more, and they head down, down, down. The subterranean setting is weirdly beautiful, and it's a credit to the editor that the movie is as interesting as it is before anything even goes wrong. But go wrong it does: after they crawl through a harrowingly small passage it collapses behind them, and that's when Juno admits that they're not in the well-mapped cave system they thought they were in. For adventure's sake, she took them to somewhere unknown.

This is where Octopunk bails, right? Well, not this time. They don't spend a lot of time arguing, they simply start working their way back out. This requires one of the group to hang over a lethal drop using one hand while she uses the other to set spikes into the ceiling -- the groans of exertion as she does this had me gritting my teeth with tension. There's a good bit of this engaging danger before the next threat arrives -- the crawlers.

Great, simple monster idea. Humans who evolved in caves. Pallid, blind, emitting damn creepy noises and fast as hell. The gang gets separated and play out their own adventures, Sarah's story culminates in an amazing "gone native" after she spends some time in the crawlers' ghastly eating cave. She emerges from her fight a different woman, blood-soaked, bone-weapon in hand, letting out a howl so fierce the other women think she's one of the monsters. From then on her delicate facial features are covered in blood, making her blue eyes burn with scary intensity. She's like a bloody, pretty Sarah Conner.

The culmination of the Sarah/Juno story, with Sarah having gone local and then finding Beth and the pendant -- that's just amazing storytelling. There's no big speech, she just flicks her wrist to reveal Juno's pendant in her hand, and it's "you slept with my husband, that's why he was distant, that's why he distractedly hit that other car, you killed my family, you killed Beth and worse, left her to die, you brought us all here, you, sister, are the fucking ANGEL OF DEATH and you're going to stay behind and make sure I survive this like you promised and not because of some teary-eyed moment we're about to share, but because I'm driving this spike into your leg." Wow and wow again.

The one gripe I've got with this movie is some sloppiness at the end, which varies depending on which country you saw it in. In the States, you get a stinger of Juno in corpsey form, in the original (see it here), the stinger is the end of a dream sequence. BAD! While the mood of that very last shot is perfect for the fade-in to the credits, and I can handle the unhappy ending...a dream sequence? That's fucking lame. Exactly when in the action did she konk out? Did all the stuff we saw just happen EXCEPT her finding the exit? Or are Juno and the other two chicks up top having coffee? I'm sorry, original ending or not, that's really sloppy. While the original final shot is consistent with the movie's vibe, the connective tissue isn't. She should have just had her cry, gotten honked at, and driven off.

Still, an amazing effort. Clap clap clap. I'll certainly be checking out Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers for Horrorthon '06.


Octopunk said...

Okay, clearly I need a bit of practice with the whole brevity thing...especially since I won't have as much time during the 'thon because I'll be busy winning it.

I'mnotMarcbutmyboyfriendis said...

[not exactly spoilers ahead; if you read this article, you'll hear nothing really new here]

saaaay, i could have sworn it was sarah behind the wheel of the car and not her husband. when the bar thingy shot through the windshield it went through on the right side --- the passenger side.

were they driving a british car?

that's what made that first half-hour particularly awful for me -- that not only were her husband and daughter dead, but that she, sarah, was responsible. and that was what she was lugging around in her heart throughout the flick.

that's what surprised me the most about all of it -- how unbearably sad the story was. i can't remember the last time a movie teased such rich sympathy out of me in such short order.

i lerved this movie.

Octopunk said...

No, dummy, the opening scene takes place in Scotland. The indicators were the word "Scotland" on the screen in the beginning, the fact that her husband drifted out of the left lane, and that big wheel-like device in his lap while they were driving.

JPX said...

Dog Soldiers is great!