Movie review: The Descent
Dir. Neil Marshall
Great horror movies do two things well; the first should be obvious. The second is hiss at a burning issue through its bloody teeth. The prime examples are all over as I’d mentioned . . . somewhere around here, but I’ll reiterate. The 1970’s gave us post-Vietnam, post-Watergate paranoia films like Night of the Living Dead, Alien, The Exorcist, and all the Cronenberg stuff. The 80’s went Regan and so horror films lashed out at kids with weak moral fiber and only the saintly virgins survived the slasher onslaught. When representations of our innermost demons, like Giger’s Alien, became too much for us, we sent hordes of military might at them. Dracula became an over sexualized foreign menace (commie) possibly bringing us deadly disease. In the 90’s, we all seemed fat and happy with a phat economy and no more commies. We safely made a joke of our fears with self-referential horror flicks like Scream and From Dusk Till Dawn, or we mock them with parodies. Our ghosts, like those of Shayamalan’s scripts, only wink at us and say “gotcha!” while laughing and pointing. Guess we did seem invincible in America.
Now moth** fu**ers are trying to scare us again, either launching warnings from towers of power or cryptic messages of impending terror that travel from dungeons and caves. Horror films have been attempting to capture the zeitgeist, from the dungeon/cave dwelling fundamentalists of Silent Hill to that very intolerant executioner of the horrid Saw films. One might have thought that The Descent might tap into some of that modern angst, however, it turned out to be merely a rehash of 80’s style ugliness.
It’s promising at first, a gang of XXXXtreeeeme sports white women bonding on a white water raft, suggesting perhaps something more interesting than the average scary movie. There’s an a type-A Filipino woman in the pack, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who is quickly picked out as the crew’s Jezebel (in a clumsy “tell” by Marshall), and thus sets up plot twists and an ending that made me want to throw popcorn. Anyway, the wispy blonde heroine Sarah (Sarah McDonald) suffers a horrible tragedy, a car crash that kills her family in a completely gratuitous show of gushing blood. A year later, she reunites with the rafting buddies to go caving in the dark hills of “Appalachia, USA” (the superscript actually said that, which was supposed to evoke Deliverance of course). The women get into the caves, get lost, and then out come the monsters.
I’m a recovering Deconstructionist, however this movie begs, pleads for such treatment. Juno must take on the role of Geisha, Dragon Lady**, AND be the film’s Doctor Zachary Smith. She’s the only one at first strong enough to survive, but too feral, and finds she must pay the cost to be the boss. Sarah mutters and putters around nearly helpless until she found out someone been messin’ wit’ her man and then she’s Ellen Ripley all the sudden. All these women stuck in a cave with bizarre creatures trying to eat them and yet their major conflict is over a man. They should have taken the advice from Fishburn’s character in the Assault on Precinct 13 remake and “put their shit on pause”.
The film is full of such 80’s ideas like a strong female character can do whatever a man can do, like kill things. The women get to do the things men do in these survival horror flicks (and did in Marshall’s previous film Dog Soldiers) like have broken bones reset whilst cursing and perform mercy killings.
On scares, it isn’t much better than 80’s slashers. These survival horror films shouldn’t even bother giving characters names or personalities. They should just have people named “Ham Sandwich,” “Steak Jackson,” “Lobster Jones.” The film does convey tension effectively at points, and there’s a moment when it looks as if it might be about women surviving in a harsh urban streets as the leering humanoids linger under spotlights then attack as if muggers and Juno executes some (what else) martial arts on them.
People are going around saying this is a great horror film. Don’t you believe them. While it does a yeoman’s job of getting the physics of horror correct, it is empty of the relevance that makes the great ones great. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It would be relevant if this was 1987. Marshall’s crap was better when it was free on the Sci-Fi Channel.
** I don’t want to belabor the deconstructionist stuff, however the film did remind me of one good thing about 80’s era horror movies, their giddy play to one of their core audiences, black folk. One of the half-geniuses behind the Freddy franchise realized a bit late in the game that black audiences flocked to those corny sequels, and often dropped in POC, who were basically types, yet they were nonetheless recognized on a marketing level. Oh, they often died heroically, yet that was a better fate than what is laid out for the one POC character in this film.