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.