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Monday 7 August 2006

The Descent

reviewed by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Neil Marshall

Written by Neil Marshall

Starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone

Howard Waldrop: High concept: Some parts Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bud the C.H.U.D., and Don't Look Now.

Both: This one coulda been a contender, until they threw in all the usual modern horror movie "shock for the sake of shock" crap. Solid direction by Neil Marshall gets wasted due to a gimmick-laden script, also by Neil Marshall. Assuming the latter isn't due to the usual Hollywood studio meddling, Mr. Marshall needs to have a firm talk with himself to find out what went wrong.

Lawrence Person: I had pretty high hopes for this based on Marshall's previous film Dog Soldiers, a little gem of a movie that made the most of its limited budget to produce possibly the best werewolf film since An American Werewolf in London. Here he has an obviously bigger budget and a more original monster, but, strangely enough, it's not nearly as good.

HW: Brit Women Title Nine type (Shauna Macdonald), after losing husband and daughter in a catastrophic car crash involving impalement by copper conduit pipe, comes to America a year later to go caving with five other women.

The first 45 minutes are intelligent, with real acting better than a horror movie (LP: or at least this horror movie) deserves (although the first real laugh doesn't come until more than 30 minutes in). Then it gets to be a horror movie, and gets to be real stupid (with an overlayment of character-induced angst) real fast.

LP: It's got the standard "jump out and yell boo" crap at exactly the places you expect that mars most modern American horror films. The music cues, the "fake wake from a nightmare" bit (which hasn't worked since An American Werewolf in London did it twice), the "look left down the hallway, pan right while she says it's clear, and then pan back left for the obvious monster reveal" cliché, all make sure you can see every supposed shock coming from several blocks away. Occasionally Marshall the Director is good enough to carry it off despite the long odds handed him by Marshall the Screenwriter. In the scene where all six are in a chamber, swinging their lights around trying to find the chud, you know exactly what is going to happen, but when the light swings back to show the chud right in the middle of them it still works.

HW: Not many clichés are left unturned (it's the approach to the clichés — like in Laurel and Hardy's approach to the laugh — that The Descent differs from a thousand others, and has made some critics mistake this for a good movie).

There are a couple of surprises (which later add to the dumbth) and this movie allows women to be tougher than most producers think most audiences will take. It’s like all the women are Ripleys; their faults are character flaws, not that they're women who should be dithering and screaming while Guys Take Care of Business.

The outstanding dumb thing: in North Carolina they come into a cave with Altamira/Lascauz/Aurignacian cave paintings of prehistoric bison, horses, etc. Not in America, where the pictographs came from a different, Asian-influenced tradition and were usually done in rock shelters, not in caves. (And nowhere "2 miles down" as the script has it.) The Scottish director/screenwriter may or may not be aware of this, be he should have checked it out. (It's part of a plot-point to show there's another way out of the cave.)

Also, if the chuds — nowhere called anything, except in the credits where they're "crawlers" — once had cave-art, why did they take the Morlock route and devolve, rather than the European cave-man route and get smarter and nicer? (They have acute hearing but their sense of smell sucks — like not smelling burning torches or the people they're standing on — their tactile sense sucks, too.)

But I'm trying to make daylight sense of what is a deep-cave horror movie.

LP: Yes, it's pure lazy monster movie expediency: The chuds supposedly have superb hearing, but one can't hear the heartbeat or breathing of the women he's standing right on top of. Moreover, why would they have lost their sight, especially since they supposedly came to the surface at night to hunt? Despite popular belief, bats are not blind, and it's hard to conceive of a homo sapiens offshoot that would devolve so radically as the chuds have in such a short period of time. Though creepy and having a certain surface plausibility, it takes all of 30 seconds to conclude that the possibility of the chuds ranges from "very, very unlikely" to "totally fucking stupid."

If you can put up with all the stupidity, the parts of the film that do work work really well. The inherent claustrophobia of tight, underground places in total darkness, the thought of treading dark passages down into the earth, carries a time-honored, primal frisson of fear that underlies everything from Gilgamesh and Theseus to the Mines of Moria and Dungeons & Dragons, and Marshall uses it to good effect.

Special note should be made of the similarities to at least two H. P. Lovecraft tales, "The Lurking Fear" and "The Rats in the Walls", both of which involve not only descending dark passages in the earth, but also races of hideous, degenerate humanoids. Some critics have noted that disgust and revulsion at such degenerate "sub-humans" are one of Lovecraft's primary themes, and the chuds have that in spades. (They look like a mottled albino cross between Gollum and Yellow Bastard from Sin City.) But Lovecraft was writing in the 1930s, when evolutionary biology was in its infancy, and both those stories are infused with the deeper cosmic horror which was Lovecraft's greatest strength, and which is so woefully lacking here.

The sad thing is, Marshall could have made this a film about a caving expedition gone wrong, without the monsters, and it would have been five times as good. The extended sequence of one of the woman performing a dangerous free-climb across a ceiling to bridge a chasm is absolutely gripping. Frankly, nothing in the chud-fight measures up to it. Of course, if he had gone that route, he might have had problems getting it funded...

HW: There are three ways this one can end: the usual way, the unusual way, and the "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" way (which, as Lawrence says, has been done before, but in this case would have been an improvement). Marshall chose a variant on The Usual Way: The Unexpected Expected Usual Way.

LP: And yes, we get the symbolism of the title, i.e. the human descending into savagery to fight the savages, symbolized by the penultimate scene of our blood-soaked protagonist crawling up the hill of bones. It’s a staple of horror films at least as old as the original The Hills Have Eyes, and isn't particularly novel here.

The really sad thing is, this probably is the best of the horror movie crop hitting American theaters this year. I think it's possible to make a great horror movie, but nothing that Hollywood has done recently aims that high, which explains why they've been importing all their best ideas from Japan. See The Descent if you must, and then rent the original versions of The Haunting or The Exorcist to see what a really great horror film looks like. (Or Tremors, to see a monster movie where both the people and the monsters get smarter rather than stupider.)

Both: Two thumbs sideways. Way sideways.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.