Friday, January 9, 2015

The Descent - Movie Review

The Descent
Released 2005
Directed by Neil Marshall

Slow-burn buzz.  Possibly the slowest burning buzz I've ever seen for a horror movie.  Over the past decade, The Descent has been gradually clawing its way higher and higher up on my watch list.  When previews for it first came out in 2005, I laughed at how terrible it looked.  I mean, really, who wants to watch a bunch of babes mud-wrestle in a cave and get eaten by orcs?  Not me! 


The Descent is a remarkably good movie.  It sports a well-rounded all-female cast that’s exactly opposite your regular Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory babe-troop.  Aside from how satisfying the characters are, the movie is fast-paced and genuinely thrilling.  It takes the claustrophobia and unease implicit in spelunking, and ramps it up fast and hard.  Then, when you think the movie is glowing with adrenaline from scaling bottomless chasms, it hits you again with the grotesque cave monsters.  Which, I know, sounds dumb, but trust me on this: the cave monsters are good.  I’ll explain why in a bit.

So, about that cast of nothing but awesome women.  It’s got 6 actual women.  Not girls, not babes- women.  Women who are brave and have virtues and flaws.  Women who go hard-core caving for funsies.  They’re thrill-seekers.  They each have their own lives and careers.  There’s a delicate web of relationships between them of which, sadly, we only catch glimpses.  But even these glimpses are rich compared to the character-development we get for characters of any gender in most movies.

Not a duck-face in sight.

And the reason why they looked like they were mud-wrestling in the preview is because they kinda do- it’s just that they’re engaged in some of the most sloppy, brutal, true-to-life fighting I've seen for a while.  None of this prettily choreographed, laughably-unrealistic Black Widow bunk.  They slip and roll around in blood-mud with inbred mutants until they’re lucky enough to plunge their thumbs deep into said mutant’s eye-sockets.  It’s harsh.  And for someone who's looked up to Ellen Ripley since 4th grade, it’s also really satisfying.   

About those cave monsters.  Spoiler: they’re an ancient race of humans that have evolved underground.  They’re blind and use echolocation to hunt prey.  They crawl lots and it’s quite uncanny.  But they also have really bad senses of smell, and aren’t very good at knowing what’s in their bone-room.  Look… don’t worry about the logisitics.  This isn’t science-fiction.  This is a horror movie about The Moon-eyed People.  And while I was personally underwhelmed by The Moon-eyes as capital-M Monsters per se, I really loved them as a more subtly-shaded device: human-shaped animals.  The Descent shows you the monster lots.  And to be entirely fair, the make-up effects are gorgeous.  But once I got over the displeasure of how much I was looking the monsters in the face, the more they started to warp into something more interesting.  They began to seem less Other-y.  This coincides perfectly with the descent of the characters into primal survival states.

I'm considering investing in an climbing adze.

To make a note about cinematography/direction, there’s also a beautiful, lovely, gorgeous shot in this movie.  The lead has to scramble up a hill of bones to the surface.  She’s illuminated by a narrow shaft of light among the darkness.  She struggles, exhausted, covered in blood and death, up and up.  It’s one of the most heartbreaking expressions of grieving I’ve ever seen.  By the time you see it, it’ll make sense.  And, yes, a woman crawling up a bone-pile is very heavy-handed.  And I would happily call it silly in anything other than a horror movie that seems to have been crafted entirely around this gem of a shot.

Onto things that aren't great about this movie: the bad CG.  It’s mostly used for cave interiors that would be really unfeasible to construct or shoot on location, so just deal with it.  There are no CG monsters, and the movie makes use of practical effects for everything it wants to look good.  But, I know some people honestly just can’t stand older CG, especially on HD tvs, so if that’ll break your concentration- try to prepare yourself.

Also, the pacing is off, and I’m not sure whether it makes the movie better or worse.  The fight-scenes can seem a little sluggish.  They really wallow in the… well, wallowing.  There are parts that I think are drawn out just a touch too much in attempts milk every last sweet drop of tension and excitement out of a situation.  

Then again, the weird pacing of this movie made its jump-scares intense.  I have a bad habit of counting down to jump-scares in movies.  You know: “Jump-scare in 3, 2, 1…Rawr!”  Try it sometime, you’re probably better at it than you think.  But this movie is uncountable.  I’m having a hard time pinning down exactly why the scares are so effective, but suffice to say, I screamed “JESUS CHRIST!” more than once in alarm.

As an overall result, the pacing has some beneficial effects, but makes the movie feel loosey-goosey.  Preferably, it would be edited down into elegant perfection, but I know this isn’t always possible.  It’s just a touch disappointing when there are so many other yummy things going on.

In conclusion, if you love the idea of the Ted the Caver creepypasta but are too impatient to read all the way through it, have I got the movie for you!  While not the most subtle or psychological of horror tales, The Descent definitely hits all the good spots of a survival/monster movie.  Good characters, thrills, chills, and blood-mud.

Oh, and the best Apocalypse Now moment since… Apocalypse Now.


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