Thursday, November 5, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: THE DESCENT

at 1:00 PM
As usual the feature post needs to be delayed a week, but you can't be too disappointed in a hot take on possibly the most acclaimed horror of the '00s.

THE DESCENT (2005)
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: Neil Marshall

THE DESCENT in one sentence:
Yourself: Crawling back into the womb has never before involved this much crawling!

Golem: This cave is creepy.

Here's a story about me and THE DESCENT:
Yourself: It's been on my list since it was first called "the new ALIEN", which I think was before I'd seen ALIEN.

Golem: My girlfriend says males don't get the pajama joke. [editor: that's racist and you could go to jail for it]

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: This isn't a plot gripe but Scottish accents should default to subtitled, because that isn't English. "Vooshkin vooshkin orgasm blippity boo? Bloosky booshkin orgasm!" Ahh, foreigners. Should all go to hell.

I like that the movie sets up an ensemble cast and then kills it - in that alone I can understand the ALIEN/S comparison - despite some characterizations that feel like rote slasher work. THE DESCENT makes this work by keeping the characters together and emphasizing the brutalizing feedback of violence - after all, the absence of that catharsis is Sarah's conflict that sets up the entire story. So, for instance, Holly may be the generic rash teenager who throws caution to the wind and definitely gets killed first, but before that she gets a horrible compound fracture and everyone has to scream the bone back into place, then they carry her on, then the group as a whole is attacked and she's left for dead, then Juno fights over her body, then she's she's finally dragged off by monsters. Later still her body comes back! The tension and emotion is dragged out to the point where it is no longer about a generic character's death, but about reacting, struggling against it, coping. Trauma.

The symbolic function of the eponymous descent creates a nice parallel between the main characters, Sarah (the traumatized one) and Juno (the one in denial), but when Golem pointed out after the movie I'd missed the detail that Juno had been having an affair with Sarah's husband I had to re-evaluate. It's weird to drown such a detail in the noise (2/3 of our audience missed it), yet that an affair would come across as a whisper shows just how numb and denially Sarah and Juno have become.

Golem: From the start of the spelunking trip, the film indicates that this is no normal cave. Still, the tension centers around normal cave activities until maybe the halfway point (one-thirdway point? [editor: two-thirdway]). To start, the film conveys a continuity of space as each character, one after the other, follow through the same passages. With this, you get tense scenes wondering if Sarah will get crushed to death in the teeny tiny passage or if the other lady can cross a huge chasm by climbing on the ceiling. As they progress, they search out the way forward.

When the cavepeople appear, the film ditches this. Characters scramble and scatter, and I can't keep track of where everyone is relative to the others. While you might wonder if they'd lose track of where they'd been, their location in the cave is irrelevant. The crew just needs to escape a bunch of monsters. Once they can do that, they're as good as out (as you can see in the final scene). How does Sarah come upon Beth's nearly-dead body in a huge, pitch black pit of gross corpses? Questions like these don't matter once the film steps away from reality.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Blackest night. The flashy monochromatic lighting is very memorable (most memorably red, but also yellow and sometimes green) and it makes it easy to take for granted how much of every single frame is pure black. I would say the film is about 60% negative space, using small, angled images to convey the claustrophobia of the cave system. Static shots reinforce the tight, confining effect of the space portrayed.

The action is edited with the manic sense one would expect from 2005, but I found it had a greater consistency of space and time than much of the painful chop-em-up trend. Cuts occur more frequently than you can blink, but they center on the same set-piece such that any sequence, however frantic, can still be understood as "Sarah knocks a monster to the ground and wails on it (whales on? dictionary isn't helping me here)" or "Holly falls down a hole". It's not my favorite style, but it is necessarily disorienting.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: No, not really. I spent much of the movie trying to figure out which character was which, although admittedly if you put a bunch of identical-physique actresses in identical helmets and spelunking gear and then turn out the lights, you can hardly blame them for being indistinguishable. Still, it is bad when I don't know which one is the main character. None of the acting is bad, it just doesn't do anything to elevate beyond the slasher territory this occasionally veers toward.

Juno at least does a solid job with her most important scene, when she accidentally attacks Beth. I bought into the conflict over how to react and without dialogue understood her decision as selfishly pragmatic.

One outright positive: Sarah in Berzerker Mode.

They drew first blood...

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: For once I've got a shot instead of a scene, and this reminds me more of something I've seen (and really liked) in video games. There is a wide shot after the first caving sequence, when the characters have reached a large chamber and are wandering around, cooling off. Way in the back, all the way on the left side of the screen, you can see a tiny possibly humanoid form just bobbing around. It doesn't make any quick movements and nothing in the direction calls attention to it, it's just a little wtf? detail that hints at what's to come.


And holy shit going back for the screengrab I see how obvious a composite this image is. It looks like I photoshopped it. Honestly didn't notice that on viewing. But anyway, over at the left you see what I mean.

Golem: The caveguys are always ultra creepy, but they cross into something more whenever they crawl on the ceiling. I imagine it's shot upside-down. The effect is that for a split-second I forget which way is upward. It's disorienting, and the unnatural movement highlights how bizarre they are: a momentary transition from menacing to cool.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: In a broad metaphorical sense, Sarah's descent into dark, animalistic rage is a fairly straightforward extrapolation of the mental state leftover from life-destroying trauma. Nothing about the cave or the monsters therein feels particularly specific or analytic, but it still works in an abstract expressionist sense. We don't need to hear Sarah dealing with her trauma because the film is concerned with emotional states and drawing them out through conceit. I mean, that's all right there in the title.

If we go with the ending where Sarah does not escape and is revisited by her PTSD visions as death approaches, I'd take the film as an exploration of Sarah's self-destruction and unraveling as a person, descending deeper and deeper into her id and losing the social constructs she had built into a person. Her last semblance of humanity is lost when she chooses not to forgive Juno - she has given in and chosen violence and anger as the final solution.

With the U.S. ending (for what it's worth, the one we saw), in which Sarah does escape, I would read a purgative journey, in which all of the women are put to a survival test, and the one who has experienced the deepest trauma - "the worst has already happened to you" - is able to connect to her animalistic nature to survive. In this sense the story is basically Deliverance.

The choice of ending substantially changes my read of the film, and while that does speak to the broadness of the subtext (or the laziness of my read), it is not necessarily to its detriment. Expressionism is naturally malleable. Neil Marshall has stated he likes both endings and had more in mind, and does not consider any to be the "correct" version. Incidentally, PART 2 moves forth with the U.S. ending - one wonders if sequel talks ignited the edit.

Note to future self on watching THE DESCENT:
Yourself: Turn on the subtitles for the Scottish because I think I missed literally all of the character detail. I liked the claustrophobic tension of the first half so much that the action breakout felt rough - to bring it back to that popular comparison, the movie is ALIEN and ALIENS in one. Still, the violence is carefully intentioned and the setting so novel that minor complaints quickly dissipate.

Also, check out this plot summary of THE DESCENT PART 2. I can't tell if the IMDB writer was making this joke on purpose.
"Refusing to believe her story about cave-dwelling monsters [xenomorphic aliens], the sole survivor of a spelunking [planetary] exploration gone horribly wrong is forced to follow the authorities back into the caves [colony] where something awaits."

Golem: THE DESCENT is one of the most sober-minded films I've seen in quite some time. Its clean/uncomplicated plot leaves a film dedicated to pacing its tension. While it seems well-made, I think I either need more plot or something more showy.

Come back next week for our much-anticipated season finale: DRACULA. 

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