Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: THE DESCENT: how to bin a good idea

There's a SEQUEL!?
Saw this after finally shelling out for a copy, given my local vid shop's refusal to buy a copy for rent (poor me!). I bought it because I'd heard nothing but good about it and thought it might well be something worth having on the shelf to refer to, revisit and enrich my display of horror through the ages. Sounded strong enough to be a Ginger Snaps or Near Dark. So, one coolish Friday eve, the quasi-anniversary of my most successful season at Shadows, I sat down to behold and be mused by The Descent.

I'm going to start out by admitting my keen interest in the highly charged symbol clashing engine of the premise: a group of daring young women plunge into a deep damp cave in a thick forest. I'm sorry if this causes offence but there are just some movie setups that swell the imagination ...... Anyway....

So. Press play and dig. Three women white water rafting. It's obviously dangerous but they're having a great time. Back at still water they return to the bank and the only male in the cast, the husband of the Scottish one. That will do for his name as, after a few meaningful eye contacts with another of the trio, he is dispatched. I don't have to say how but it's ... final. And then in the hospital, his wife wakes from her post traumatic dormancy in the midst of a nightmare set it an empty golden lit hospital. Nightmare? Maybe and maybe not.

A year on, she, Sarah, joins a group of other women (read: early victims of the movie's bad thing) in the App'lacians to go caving for real. As the steps to annihilating easy retreat progress we find out that Juno (who'd had those serious glances with Sarah's husband earlier) has lied to them about the cave, claiming that they were to attempt a much easier one. This one is supposedly undiscovered and much more of an adventure. This also means that anyone they've informed of their caving plans is going to go to the wrong one. So they're on their own. Well, no...

Sarah hears something, we see something and then she sees something too. The women are trapped in a cave that they don't even know they can escape with some weird wild creature. No one believes Sarah, they have their own internal conflicts to workshop, until the creature actually appears. It's sudden and swift and shocking, a deformed white figure appears and then races back into the darkness amid the screams of the women. This is great stuff. Tense and beautifully realised. And now it's a monster movie! I don't want my money back. In fact could I donate some?

And then the situation worsens. It's not just one there are many. They look human but are completely hairless and apparently blind, their eyes shine like freshly poached eggs. Next good idea: to get past them on the way to freedom, the women need to be very quiet. We get a few scenes like the famous bodyheat one in Hardware in which various members of the team thwart or suffer some white-knuckle closeness with the creatures. Get it? These scream queens can't scream. The trad primary use of women in horror scenarios, especially those involving violent grotesquery, is the scream. This can be conquered through the force of will that any final girl worth her salt will turn into decisive confrontation. But these ones can't do it. Brilliant! However ....

The Descent commits the error of all horror movies that fail their initial promises: it peaks and then collapses into repetition. The problem is that it shows the monster too well and too soon. After this second act exposure the suspense begins draining from the film and can never be restored. Consequently, most of this film, when it involves the creatures must use ever more desperate surprises to maintain the feeble tension that remains. The other trope is to keep increasing the threat until the situation looks hopeless. So when they aren't suddenly coming to life like your badboy older brother who plays dead and then screams "BOO!" when you're close enough, there are so many of them, creeping nimbly around the rocks, clicking their batlike echolocation to each other and swarming on the poor humans.

The other thing, as these leave nothing for the viewer beyond waiting for the next one, is violence between the women themselves. Some of this has the desperate stupidity of most of the killing in Eden Lake and there is one foreshadowed act of violence between two of them which might have been breathtaking in its boldness and the sheer force of its hatred if it hadn't been for all the ghost train shocks and gorings. It's clear to me that this moment stood tallest in the conception of this film but it is so swamped by routine that it's hard to take very seriously.

The very ending, foreshadowed very craftily, is quite stunning. Quiet, doomladen and heartbreaking.

My problem is not that The Descent isn't any good, it is. My problem is that in a kind of panic to establish itself as a horror movie it blows its wad too early. The first time I saw Alien I felt dread at the memory of the monster yet could not, for the life of me, imagine it in full. It wasn't necessary to see it fully, you just needed to know it was there in the dark, with that endlessly fatal dentistry. The sequel had to change genres from horror to shoot-em-up action as it insisted on showing the alien completely. And then it had to pile them on so the prospect went from the dread of unknowing to an excessive war game.

The Descent also bins its most intriguing genre innovation, forbidding the scream, by giving in to laziness: well we all know they scream, let them. This dulls the sheen of all the really interesting plot points that are present on screen, just obscured by unadventurous thinking.

But it didn't have to be that adventurous to be better. Good  traditional horror movies keep all the control to themselves and mete it out to the viewer only when they have to. Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, The Haunting, Dark Water, Alien, Inside, Martyrs and Ju-on were all made with this knowledge. If you can get used to a threat it is no longer a threat but an inconvenience. That is why this story of daring women facing terror inside and out is kept from greatness and can only barely keep its head above its high gloss mainstream waterlevel with the briefest of glances of its potential greatness. What a bloody waste!

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