Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Descent

Watching a good, well made horror film is scary enough sometimes in broad daylight. Watching one after midnight in an empty house because you can't sleep compounds all the nuances of the horror film experience. I'm pretty sure Neil Marshall's horror film "The Descent" would have been easier to watch with sunlight leaking in through the venetian blinds, but I don't think it was ever meant to be viewed that way. I think it was meant to be viewed in a solitary environment, because its where the film takes its lead character, and character is really the powerhouse behind this picture.

The storyline is very simple. A group of female adventure seekers gather together to go caving in the Appalachian mountains. The film plays with all three of the classic conflicts of story; woman against the elements, when they discover that the cave network they are in is not the one they thought they were exploring, compounded by a cave-in which drives them forward in a potentially vain attempt to find another opening to the caves; woman against other, in this case both a stalking presence within the caves, as well as against each other due to past history; and woman against self, in almost all the characters, but most thoroughly explored in the characters of Sarah, a woman who lost her family in a car accident a year earlier, and Juno, the expedition's leader.

I've read some reviews that said the performances were weak, wooden, etc. I don't think I saw the same film those reviewers did, because Shauna MacDonald's complete meltdown in a hospital hallway in the opening moments of the film were gut wrenching. It produced tension in my body, tension which only let up for the moments the women were aboveground preparing to begin their caving expedition. I think the reason some may have disliked the portrayals is because this all-woman cast is thoroughly feminine and strong. Some men just can't handle that. They need a male to come in and rescue, and this film does not provide that.

Often when I'm very frightened by a film, I start watching in on x2 speed. I couldn't bring myself to do that on this film, even when I knew I really ought to be getting to bed already. Even at the points where it was scene after scene of claustraphobic crawling through narrow pipes and passages. Even when it was shot after shot of nothing but lights bobbing in darkness. I could sense the immersion in the environment Marshall had created, and wanted to stay down in the cave with the characters until the film reached its resolution, whatever it would be.

For a horror movie that works with "something down there", it spent the better part of the picture letting the "down there" be the monster. The women in the caves, in the darkness created enough tension that by the time the "something down there" finally shows up, you're wound tight enough to come apart. I jumped, I gasped, I gave my head a shake. I exhaled deeply. There are cheap "make you jump" gags, but they aren't the source of the real horror. Truth be told, this film would have been nearly as awful in its resolution without the "something down there". If anything, the Crawlers serve as a counterpoint to ask what is truly monstrous?

On that note, a discussion that contains spoilers. Jump to the following paragraph if you plan on seeing "The Descent" yourself. Or go rent it and come back...

I've read the theories that state that the whole experience was Shauna's delusion. I need about twenty more viewings to really debunk that theory to be sure, and while "The Descent" definitely works as a piece of uncanny or fantastic narrative, the fact that focalization switches between Shauna and Juno throughout makes that problematic. If we only saw Crawlers when Shauna was the focalizer, then the madness theory could hold water. But Juno has several very real encounters with the Crawlers, so their presence is more likely physical than psychological. When the film reverts back to the cave in its very last moments, I think its more that Shauna's descent into madness is now complete. Its a powerful statement on revenge to be sure. The question could be asked, would Shauna's tenuous hold on her sanity have been lost had she forgiven Juno and they had emerged from the cave together, leaving behind their myriad personal demons within? The trouble with that ending is that it would have been just upbeat enough to have been merely a "happy ending" and the subtlety of the revenge motif lost in a Hollywood cliche.

A good horror movie should haunt you. After the stomach turning, the adrenaline rushes, the heart in your throat or in your toes moments, you should feel somewhat haunted. And you should have a sense of wonder, of awe, of a terror that goes deeper than bump in the night. It should involve introspection, of questions of what it means to be human, of what it means to be alive, of the meaning of the cosmos. If all a horror film does is make you jump, it's no better than porn; it titilates for a reaction, and once that reaction is achieved, is discarded. "The Descent" is a powerful example of horror at its very best, and as such, edged Constantine off my top 10 films of 2005. I've included an adjusted list here for those who, like me, love lists, and to show how very much I esteem this piece of film.

Top Ten Movies of 2005
1. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2. King Kong
3. Batman Begins
4. The Descent
5. Sin City
6. Serenity
7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
8. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
9. War of the Worlds
10. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

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