FACE YOUR FEARS
Every year Sarah and her friends get together for an adrenalin-pumping weekend of adventure. Whitewater rafting, rock climbing – the kind of things a lot of us would like to do, if we had the courage. They aren’t Amazons, just ordinary women, but they face their fears, plan for emergencies, and tackle their adventures with the utmost professionalism.
But this year, things are different. Sarah’s husband and daughter were killed in a car crash a year ago, right after the ladies’ last trip. It’s been a hard year for Sarah, but her friend Juno hopes that their next excursion will help Sarah and the rest of their friends reforge their bond and move forward with their lives. So she takes them caving in the Appalachian Mountains.
It ought to be an easy outing. The cave is rated for beginners, they have all the equipment they need, and they all know what they’re doing. But Sarah is finding it hard to recover her courage. She keeps having visions of her daughter, and freezing at the worst possible moments. And it gets worse. A cave-in cuts them off from the entrance, and nothing is right about this “beginners’ cave”. Before long they realize that they’re in a cave that’s never been explored...
At least, not by humans.
CHICKS WITH PICKS
This is one of my favourite horror movies from the last few years. Yes, 28 Days Later rocked my world, Slither was cute and had Mal Reynolds in it, and my love for Bubba Ho-Tep is a matter of record. I’ll even go to bat for Saw, Cabin Fever and the Dawn of the Dead remake. But you know what? The Descent outscares every one of them. Writer/Director Neil Marshall makes brutally efficient use of several of our worst fears and taboos, but there’s more to this movie than simply picking the right panic buttons. Marshall spends the entire first hour of the movie setting up the characters and getting us into the mood, lowering us into this pit of fear so slowly and effectively that we identify perfectly with the characters. Beyond the writing, the technical side of the movie is perfectly tuned to produce an intense claustrophobia and feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. For the whole first half of the women’s descent into the cavern, we see only what they see, a vastness of impenetrable darkness lit only by feeble headlamps and the occasional flickering glow of a flare.
47 minutes into the movie, we have the Descent’s first “what the fuck was that?” moment, and by this time we are so ready for it, it’s completely believable and very, very creepy. Another five agonizing minutes pass before Sarah sees the WTFWT?, and by now both she and the audience are about to wet their pants. Another few minutes go by, and all hell breaks loose. And then...
Well, I’ll be honest with you. After that it’s a bug hunt. The monsters are creepy, but it kind of feels like Marshall decided he’d played with us long enough, couldn’t maintain the suspense any longer and so decided to pile on gore so excessively nobody would notice its absence. The second half of the movie is extremely gory. It’s also filmed in a whole different style. The claustrophobic lighting is gone, replaced by mock torchlight that somehow just manages to illuminate all the action. The slow, dread-inducing pace is switched for sped-up chase and attack sequences very similar to the ones in 28 Days Later and a dozen other recent horror-SF-action hybrids. And, while Marshall still has a few surprises and twists up his sleeve that keep the second act entertaining and even relatively tense, it’s not quite as scary as the first act promised it would be.
Adding to the problems, Marshall’s monsters are one trick ponies whose gimmick is not only totally unrealistic, but very much overplayed long before the end of the movie.
But don’t get me wrong, the second half of the movie is still plenty scary. It’s a bug hunt, and after fifty years of Hollywood’s love affair with monster movies it’s damn hard to make a bug hunt stand out from the crowd, but this is still a nicely done bug hunt. Thankfully, Marshall knows that good horror doesn’t rely on monsters alone, but on human emotion and internal conflict, so aside from the creepy-crawlies there’s a whole second plot running through the movie that keeps the intensity up, leading to a climax that’s like a shot in the gut.
Highly recommended for anyone who can stand high levels of gore and badly drawn woolly rhinoceroses. Not a good movie for claustrophobics...
- The American theatrical version of the movie was horrifying enough, but what the rest of the world saw, and what you get on the American unrated DVD, is an ending roughly a minute longer and three times scarier.
- The “Blue Harvest” in-house name for the movie was “Chicks With Picks”.
- In order to get the best reaction from the actresses, Marshall told them they couldn’t see the monsters until they actually started filming their first confrontation scene – and then he snuck them on stage during what the women thought was just another cave exploring segment. As you can see in the movie, it worked nicely.
- As you might guess from the above, the monsters are not CGI, but real, live actors. It’s possible there was some kind of makeup involved. On the other hand, the cave is totally fake, and the “Appalachian Mountains” are Scotland – which I think is a nice reversal of how it usually works in the movies.
- There is a sequel in the works, tentatively called “De2cent”. Marshall will be involved somehow, but isn’t writing or directing. No one knows whether the sequel will be based on the American or British ending of the first film.