Jarv’s Top 10 2000-2009. Number 7: The Descent

I said it about schlock, but I’m going to repeat it about Horror: this has been a terrible decade. Horror is, I believe, more problematic than Schlock as people will always make fun rubbish (intentionally or unintentionally). Horror, however, suffers from “trends”. What tends to happen is that one particular subgenre will be popular and, as Horror costs next to nothing to make, profitable. This in term brings all the scumbag cash in merchants out of the woodwork to bang out endless inferior copies that are a little bit like the original successful film. The predictable and depressing end result of this is that we get “movements” (I can’t think of a better description) that dominate the genre for about 6 years until saturation point is reached and the genre lurches into the new subgenre. Don’t believe me? Look at postmodernism in the 90’s- in the beginning there was Scream then Scream 2 and 3, the I Know films, Cherry Falls, Urban Legend etc.

Rinse, repeat ad infinitum and, more appropriately, ad nauseum.

The 21st Century has, so far, been plagued by two particular sub genres- both of which are terrible. The first was the J-horror remake trend. Ringu is an effective ghost story, and I believed did warrant a remake (remove all the goblin nonsense). What we got was garbage shot with a blue filter. This was, unfortunately copied by such utter tosh as The Grudge, Dark Water, etc etc etc. The second, and far more evil movement that has come to crush the life out of the genre is Torture Porn. I’m not going to go into this, but this is one of my pet hate subjects. There has never been a good torture porn film, and there never will be.

Against this raging torrent of sewage a few films have stood out. This film has been like a lighthouse in the sea of the second-rate guiding would-be horror fans to a safe harbour away from the talentless and the mediocre. The Descent is simply the finest horror film of the decade, and one of the best since the glorious 70’s. Neil Marshall’s sophomore effort improves on the excellent Dog Soldiers, managing to create an intelligent, claustrophobic nightmare of a film that gives me some hope for the survival of the genre- despite Rob Zombie and Eli Roth.

I warn any reader now, I am going to spoil this film. There’s no way to review it without spoiling. Sorry.

The Descent opens with a horrendous car crash that has ramifications for the rest of the film. The meat, however, is  the story of a group of women that get caught underground and picked off one by one by monsters. It’s a fairly simple premise that plays expertly on common fears shared by many- confined spaces and the dark. The first half of it in particular when it is merely a caving film grips like a vice- it’s hard not to hold your breath when Juno is suspended over the abyss without a rope, and you can literally hear your nerves jangling when she is trying to retrieve the woman trapped in the collapsing tunnel. This section, and bear in mind that there isn’t anything that could remotely be called a “shock”, there are no kills, no injuries and no blood is a masterclass in building and executing tension.

The second half of the film charts the desperate battle to survive. Obviously they all fail (If you’re American, I’m sorry about that, but they do) and is a gripping survival horror tale. The release of tension from the first appearance of the crawlers is palpable, and although the film never manages to grip you the same way, rather it becomes a fun, more action oriented effort.

What separates this relatively typical effort from the pack is the writing. These women are all fully rounded characters and the characterisation is subtle rather than forced. Sure a few of them may have sapphic tendencies (the film never confirms either way, but I wouldn’t be surprised), but the majority are just normal women caught in a horrendous nightmare of a situation that’s entirely of their own making. However, the best bit of characterisation is that Juno, clearly, was fucking Sarah’s husband. They never, again, come out and explicitly state it, instead it’s implied with a look during the opening sequence. The nearest Juno gets is when she says “We all lost something that day”. With friends like these, who needs the cave monsters?

The writing also adds a layer of ambiguity to the film. There are frequent cut-away scenes to Sarah’s dead daughter, and more than a small suggestion that the monsters are all inside her head. It’s up to the viewer whether or not the monsters are real or if Sarah’s killing her friends one by one. I personally think (and the final shot would seem to confirm it) that there are no monsters, but it could easily be the other way (and the soulless sequel outright states that I’m wrong). It’s very pleasant to see a horror film that actually treats me like an adult and allows me to make up my own mind.

The performances are all outstanding- but I want to single out Natalie Mendoza for special praise. Her Juno is a calculating, selfish, arrogant bitch that no red-blooded male would kick out of bed for eating crisps, who eventually suffers a decline and fall before dying in the cave. It’s a superb performance and one of the best by a female lead in a horror film since Sigourney Weaver showed how it should be done in Alien.

Finally, if you haven’t seen it and have made it this far through this review and decided that this is a must-see film, then you’re in for a treat, but for the love of the flying spaghetti monster avoid the US version. This film was deemed too “dark” for American audiences, so in a moment of grotesque stupidity it was cut. The US version ends with Sarah successfully making out of the cave and a jarring cheap “final scare” shock (the only out-of-place moment in the film). This is a big pile of dog eggs. The film ends with Sarah, alone in the dark, smiling as the crawlers close in. Anything else is untrue. Do not accept such a diet version of The Descent.

Overall, The Descent is comfortably the best Horror film of the last 10 years. It might be the best horror film since 1990 (I’m struggling to think of anything else in the same league). I have one little request for Fox if they ever manage to stop defiling the rotting corpse of Alien and have a think- give it to Neil Marshall with the following brief: Cyberpunk Survival Horror Alien, story based on the Wizard of Oz. He clearly knows Alien backwards, he clearly understands horror, and he is clearly the man to restore the series to its former glory.

Make it happen.

Next up is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind- the only film with a fully dressed Winslet that I’ve made it through.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

27 responses to “Jarv’s Top 10 2000-2009. Number 7: The Descent”

  1. Jarv says :

    I totally agree. The first half of the film is much more tense than the second. The second is more fun though.

    Descent 2- I managed to duck the bullet on seeing it in the Cinema, but I’m meant to be seeing it round a mate’s house.

    It’s inevitably going to be shit.

  2. Bartleby says :

    I guess I can see the hate for the American ending…but while it’s extraneous, it isn’t really any happier and it isn’t completely destroying the film that came before. It isn’t even quite on the same level as if Brazil ended with Sam escaping the Ministry, sans that shot of them saying “Looks like he got away from us”.

    I agree the Brit one is better, but after seeing the US one here in theaters, and being prepped by everyone that when I saw the Brit one it would be a diff movie, I was pretty disappointed. I agree, it does open up the ambiguity of the monsters existence, an ambiguity totally smashed by the sequel which brings back not just Sarah but Juno as well.

    Great review Jarv. I agree with what you say about horror. Try and see Pontypool and The House of Devil when you get the chance. They were the two best horror entries of last year.

    Oh and if you want some good schlock news: http://cinematropolis.wordpress.com/2010/01/08/movie-reviewvampires-that-dont-suck-in-daybreakers/

    Oh, and if you need a reference point, I thought Undead was a big ol’ bag of crap.

    Your suggestion of “Cyberpunk Survival Horror Alien, story based on the Wizard of Oz” sounds like a studio pitch from the mid 90s.

  3. Jarv says :

    Cheers Jonah,

    My dislike for the US ending is that it completely removes the potential for the monsters to not be real. It dumbs down a surprisingly intelligent film. It’s a fuck sight happier, and a lot less haunting as well. It isn’t a totally happy ending, but the fact that she makes it out, and there is the tacked on shock is just nowhere near as good as the bleaker UK ending.

    The sequel can kiss my ass. Unnecessary shit. I’m at a complete loss as to how they can bring Juno back.

    • Bartleby says :

      apparently sarah and some rangers, policemen etc. go down into the cave–looking for survivors I guess–and they come across the creepy cave dwellers and then, in some scene that looks like she’s Jason or something, here comes Juno rising Creature from the Lagoon style, out of a bloody pool with her pickaxe in hand. I think the ranger even whispers “Juno” or something, as if he’d be able to ID her covered in blood and gore after being in a cave with monsters for six months.

      • Jarv says :

        Pah.

        I knew that Sarah was going back to retrieve Juno as Juno’s dad is a Senator or some such shit. How she’s alive with slit tendons living in darkness for that long is BULLSHIT.

        It’s not 6 months, it’s pretty immediate after part 1- and I reckon that Sarah would leave her down there anyway. Personally.

        Have none of them seen part 1? The creatures are the worst thing about it.

  4. Jarv says :

    Yeah, I know that sounds like a studio pitch from the 90’s, but it’s in as few words as possible the essence of what we have been talking about regarding Alien for yonks.

    Hire me and Conti to write it. It practically writes itself.

    No Ripley, though.

    • Bartleby says :

      I was with you til you said Wizard of Oz. Unless of course, Sigourney plays the hybrid human/alien Wicked Witch of the West. Then, I’m in. Henrickson can be the Wizard.

  5. Jarv says :

    No- it works like this:

    The film takes place a few years after the Auriga crashes. A lone female survivor (Natalie Mendoza, please) hears of a mythical Alien killer called Ripley. She’s got to make it to where she believes Ripley is transmitting a message to the people. Gradually, she puts together a team of guys on the way, finally makes it to whip back the curtain and reveal a busted computer playing the distress call from the Nostromo on perpetual loop.

  6. Bartleby says :

    well, it’s about time….today in my Cinematropolis search results….’Cinematropolis’ was keyword search 7 with 22 searches…

    and I found my mutant bear Prophecy review is really popular right now because some podunk town newspaper linked to it.

  7. koutchboom says :

    Also can I nominate that for best Poster of the Decade?

    That would be a hard category to do this decade. Most posters sucked butt.

  8. Jarv says :

    That is a storming poster- so much better than the UK one.

  9. koutchboom says :

    Shitty posters = new Inception poster.

  10. Jarv says :

    Taking of Pelham 123.

    Shittest poster in ages. Or any Harry Potter one.

  11. koutchboom says :

    Naw, worst poster in ages, is the fucking No Country with the floating Heads with the wrong names over the heads.

    Inception just sucks because the first one is a copy of TDK, and the new one is just the name in that new style of putting names in shit.

  12. Jarv says :

    Oh christ, I completely forgot that.

    That was a terrible poster.

  13. koutchboom says :

    Speaking of Harrys Potter, saw the new one. It was fucking awful. Worst one of the series easily.

    • Jarv says :

      Haven’t seen any of them since part 4.

      The books were rubbish for 5 and 6 so I can’t see the films being any better.

  14. Continentalop says :

    Jarv, I have a new angle for our Alien flick you’ll love -it is about Hicks & Newt. Rippley’s best in a coma since Aliens and has been dreaming the last two movies. Sigourney Weaver makes as cameo before a chestnuster rips through her stomach.
    And I just met someone last night who is working on The Thing prequel – it sounds like shit.

    • Jarv says :

      Ooh, that’s a good idea. How do we get them Alien fighting?

      I seem to remember a comic on that premise.

      I’m treating The Thing Prequel like The Descent Sequel- Unnecessary and best ignored until I absolutely can’t miss it.

    • Bartleby says :

      sounds similar to the will gibson scriptment for Alien 3, where Hicks sends Ripley’s cryo tube away or something, and he–and possibly Newt, I don’t recall–fight off aliens….it got pretty big towards the end, with just pure overkill on the action.

      What I know of the thing prequel is crap…

      I’ve heard rumblings regarding the lep film but I’ve no idea what their angle is…

  15. Jarv says :

    Also on this note, I now know what production company is making the new Lep film- where they’re based and I’m trying to get the title out of them.

  16. Droid says :

    This is a good review. Damn you Jarv.

  17. jarv says :

    Thanks

    Don’t worry- the Gladiator Cop one is juvenile and full of swearywords

  18. kloipy says :

    yeah, this managed to be one of the only horror movies I’ve seen in the last couple years that actually made me jump, and you are so right about the ending. It makes no sense to end the way it did in the US version. I think the real ending is much much scarier and just a gut punch after you think she’s out

  19. Jarv says :

    It’s just a dumber ending. Why remove the ambiguity? Why?

  20. ThereWolf says :

    Excellent review.

    The Descent is a smashing movie, but one I didn’t fully take to heart immediately like I did with Dog Soldiers – and Doomsday for that matter. It does get better with each viewing though.

    I do think REC edges it for best horror of the decade.

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