Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Descent (2005)

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

You should explore Neil Marshall's The Descent.

My appreciation for the work of director Neil Marshall goes back to the October 2002 twenty-four hour Nightmare at Studio 35 horror marathon. While the big draw of that particular show was that Bruce Campbell was in attendance to introduce a screening of The Evil Dead, do a Q&A, and sign copies of his book If Chins Could Kill, Campbell wasn't the only special guest there. Also in the film line-up was a rare theatrical screening of Marshall's feature debut Dog Soldiers, with producers David E. Allen and Brian Patrick O'Toole there to introduce the film and answer Qs. Though the movie had aired on the SciFi Channel a few months earlier, this was still the first time most people in the audience had seen Dog Soldiers and it went over like gangbusters with the marathon crowd. Laughs, claps, cheers, the enthusiastic response the film got there made it one of the best viewing experiences I've ever had. The movie was awesome, and with the story of a group of military men on a training exercise in the wilderness finding themselves up against a pack of werewolves being heavy on the action, sort of like Predator with a different kind of creature, it was one of the rare horror movies that I could get my father to watch with me once it hit DVD, and he enjoyed it as well. I looked forward to whatever Marshall would do next.

I had to wait almost four years for Marshall's follow-up, as it didn't reach theatres in the U.S. until August 2006, which is when Final Girl picked it as a Film Club entry. As you can see in the Life Between Frames archive, this blog didn't even start until 2011. That's how I missed participating in so many Film Club events that I'm now doing this Catch-Up project.

Marshall's second film starts charming horror fans as soon as it begins, with him having chosen the same style of font for the title cards as John Carpenter used on many of his films. The cast of characters in The Descent is the opposite of Dog Soldiers and its group of men with one token female. Here there's only one man who gets any lines to deliver, and he's not around for very long. The story follows a group of women who regularly get together on holidays to go rock climbing, white water rafting, dive and jump off of things, do that sort of stuff. A group of women who are way ballsier than I am. The cast is quite good, the actresses assembled from all around Europe - Scotland, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden - and even the American of the bunch having been raised in Asia, Australia, and England as well as New York City.

At the center of the story is our lead, Shauna Macdonald as Sarah. One year after losing her husband and young daughter in the car accident that opens the movie, Sarah joins her friends on another getaway. This time they've gone to America, to the Chatooga National Park in North Carolina, on a spelunking adventure in the Appalachian Mountains. After we get to know the group for a while, they begin their descent into the chosen cave while one of them rattles off all the complications a person could encounter while doing this. Beyond physical risks the dangers include disorientation, claustrophia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deterioration.

The deeper into the earth the women go, the tougher the journey gets and the worse it goes. After a passage collapses behind them, sealing off access to the way they came in, the one who took the lead on this excursion reveals that they're not even in the mapped-out cave they were supposed to be in. That cave was just a lame tourist trap, she chose this one because it's an unnamed system that no one has ever explored before.

Stuck underground with no idea of how to get out of this cave, their only choice is to keep going further and hope to come across another exit.

Marshall went for the slow build on this one. He wanted us to get to know the characters, like them or dislike them, get emotionally invested in them and their journey through the cave. He makes the most of the cave setting, which never feels false, and he gets some excellent shots drenched in the colors emitted by the group's equipment.

He gradually raises the tension level and puts bigger and bigger obstacles in the group's way. Things get worse and worse, and just when the cave seems to have thrown everything bad at them that it possibly could, that's when he turns it into a monster movie.

The monsters of The Descent, referred to as Crawlers, don't appear until just under an hour into the movie, at which point members of the group have already suffered serious injuries. The monsters show up late, but at a point that still allows for around 40 minutes of horrific action. The idea behind the Crawlers is that they're a race of humans who have been living and evolving under the ground in this cave system since prehistoric times, a bat-like variation on humans with razor sharp teeth and amazing rock climbing skills.

That's the explanation for why they are the way they are and how they could've come about, but there is a theory among viewers that the Crawlers don't even really exist, that they could just be a figment of Sarah's imagination. She is still suffering from the loss of her loved ones, she has nightmares about them, she sees glimpses of her daughter. As is said when they enter the cave, a person could have hallucinations down there... It's left up to the viewer to decide whether this is truly a monster movie or a mindscrew. (The sequel that followed a few years later went with the former option.)

Either way, The Descent is a great horror film, an effective balance of suspense and bloody terror that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a dark, serious, unnerving genre movie. If you're claustrophobic, all the better.

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