Friday, August 25, 2006

In the Deep: The Descent



The Descent is the scariest movie in years, an expertly crafted tension machine that tightens its grip on your arm throughout, masterfully blending scares, homages to other movies and moments of raw catharsis into a potent, blood-spattered blend.

If you have somehow managed to learn nothing of the plot of this film, go now, before it leaves theaters. All you need to know is that it's about some girls who descend into an uncharted cave (after some duplicity on the part of their leader). And then bad things happen.

I hate to give a warning like that, but this is the rare movie that rewards you not knowing very much going in. This is not to say that it's a twisty, turny narrative, but it IS a masterfully constructed nightmare, and what's truly horrifying about a nightmare is that you don't know how (or when) it will end.

If you have seen it, read on, for there are spoilers ahead.

The Descent works because director Neil Marshall (whose Dog Soldiers was a curiosity, but not quite a full-fledged horror masterwork like this is) effortlessly sketches in his six characters in a few short scenes. One girl, of course, has to overcome a personal trauma, but that personal trauma (the loss of a husband and daughter) is portrayed so wrenchingly, so palpably that it casts a pall of sorrow over the rest of the film. When the girls enter the cave, we feel more sadness than we do fear. There's a sense of leavetaking, of trying to hang on to something long after it's practical.

Marshall also hones in on everyone's latent claustrophobia. He sends his actresses through incredibly narrow tunnels, keeping the camera right in their faces, pinning audience members to their seats (the camera is so close in these scenes that it feels like the actresses are invading the audience's personal space). The spaces are so small, and the girls are so close that the feeling one gets when trapped in a crowded elevator is unavoidable. And Marshall doesn't quickly cut through these sequences. He draws them out. We don't see every girl struggle through every tunnel, but the sequences last long enough to have raised hackles efficiently enough.

And then things begin to go wrong.

Marshall is playing on a general sense of unease in the culture here, as brash, overconfident modern women find themselves utterly decimated by a cave-in, then an injury, then something they couldn't have possibly foreseen. None of the girls is "bad," per se. None of them "deserve" this punishment, as is the case in so many horror films. But Marshall believes that there's no such thing as deserving punishment -- people get punished or they don't, even if they don't think they should be. The Descent, like The Ruins, Scott Smith's recent horror novel, is about the situation the West finds itself in in the last five years -- that freewheeling, comic fear of death that has become a constant companion, making us jumpy, pushing us into bad situations.

Suffice it to say, there are monsters in the cave. Marshall sets this up expertly as well, sneaking them into a few early shots when we're not really looking for them, setting up the whole premise as a possible hallucination (indeed, the point-of-view character frequently hallucinates visions of her dead daughter -- one of the few things in the film that doesn't really pay off satisfactorily). Just when we're starting to become convinced these monsters (which are posited as human beings uniquely evolved to live underground and feast on meat) are real and not just hallucinations, Marshall unleashes them on us.

The first shot we see one of the monsters close-up in (look at it here) is one of the most expertly constructed "gotcha!" moments in recent cinema. The figure looms over the heroine, slightly obscured, looking like the giant devil in the Night on Bald Mountain segment in Fantasia more than anything. In addition, the image is captured in the infrared mode on a handheld camcorder, landed on purely by accident, so the framing is ever-so-slightly off. We can't see all of the monster's face. We want to, but we're not sure that's the best idea at the same time. And Marshall holds the shot for a split second longer than you think he would, giving the girls a moment to let the whole thing sink in before the action kicks in.

Marshall isn't content to let this be the final conflict either. He easily builds a rift in the small group, then exploits it for all it's worth, levelling the conflict up from man vs. environment to man vs. nature to man vs. man, all with seeming ease.

If there's a complaint to be levelled against this movie, it's that the action sequences are a little chaotic. In the limited light, the creatures and the girls tend to blend into each other, and the geography is so tight that we're lost from time to time. In some senses, this works with the movie, which is, after all, about man's loss of control when confronted with the elements, but it becomes a detriment in the later scenes when the girls start to fight back. These scenes also have a too-chaotic element to them (except for one beautifully constructed one-on-one showdown with a female monster), and that lessens the sense we have that the girls might have a shot after all, cutting down on a catharsis the movie sorely needs at this point.

Still, two of the girls in particular fight back, and these are some of the strongest female heroines in the cinema in some time. They're smart and cunning and good at improvising weapons. When they fight back, you buy it, even in the pitch black darkness.

The ending, famously, was changed for the American version (see the original one here). The original pays off a motif that sorely needed paying off and is probably more realistic, but I think I prefer the American ending, which doesn't return us to the cave definitively (though it's strongly hinted at). If the film is about the loss of control everyone in the world has felt recently, the American ending allows that control to be regained more definitively. There's a chance to cry, a chance to throw up and a reminder that no one can fully conquer malevolence. Granted, the original ending allows the heroine to regain control (the choice she makes, after all, is hers and hers alone), but it doesn't feel as definitive as the American version -- in some ways, it feels like nihilism for nihilism's sake.

Because The Descent, ultimately, is about overcoming trauma, about fighting it back to stay human. And whether we battle those demons with our vomit and tears or with caving gear turned into implements of death, we're all reeling in the dark, not quite sure of where our blows will land.

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