Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Descent (2005)

You guys, I love this movie. It has so many stellar things going for it: an entirely female cast of relative unknowns who all kill it in their respective roles, it is shot absolutely beautifully and it is legitimately terrifying in both a claustrophobic tension way and a getting-one’s-throat-ripped-out-by-monsters way.

Horror movies almost never have all-female casts. In fact, horror movie are almost never very kind to women. There is certainly the trope of the Last Woman Standing but more often than not, women in horror have throughout history tended to exist chiefly as monster food. Google isn’t turning up much info in the way of all-female horror casts—though I did break my rule of never reading the comments to find this gem: “They already made one. It was called Beaches.”—other than The Descent.

Shot in the UK with primarily European actors, The Descent is about a group of thrill-seeking ladies who enter into a large cave system somewhere in the southern United States, get lost and are stalked by a tribe of underground dwelling monsters. Fittingly, I watched this movie with my lady movie/gaming friends who, like me, are somewhat less-than-thrill-seeking. As the women in the film descended into the narrow, horrible, claustrophobic cave tunnel, we quizzed each other on whether we’d prefer to go skydiving or caving. This was meant in a “if you were forced to do one of these activities which one would you hate less?” kind of way. I had a tough time with this scenario because why can’t I just stay home? Or go swimming at the community pool or maybe play a game of pickup soccer? That’s about as adventurous as I get (for the record, everyone but Kelly picked skydiving. No thanks, cave.)

I am a fairly claustrophobic person, probably as a result of being the younger sister of a bully who did things like folding me into a sofa bed, putting the cushions on it and flopping down.  I went to a haunted house several years ago that had one of those inflatable pressure tunnel things and had a panic attack. On the other side of the tunnel was an actor with a chainsaw and when I came stumbling out, wheezing and flailing, he started to rev the chainsaw and then was like, “oh, shit” and backed away. Small spaces are just not for me and there is a several minute sequence in the beginning of the second act of The Descent in which our protagonist Sarah gets stuck crawling through a very narrow tunnel that is beginning to collapse and it makes me want to die... or at least spend some time casually breathing into a paper bag.

After the narrow tunnel collapses and nearly kills Sarah, we learn that the group’s organizer, an overly smug alpha female named Juno, has taken everyone into an unexplored portion of the caves. No one knows they are there and they are trapped. Interpersonal feuding ensues (I am really minimizing the personal aspects of the plot, but it's a pretty entertaining arc and it also uses one of my favorite horror movie tropes: Something Bad Happened About One Year Ago, Give or Take.)

Much of the second act is the group trying to find their way through the caves, including a disgusto broken leg/exposed bone scene. Really cringeworthy. The budget of this movie was practically nothing (something like $3.5M) and it still looks so, so good, particularly in these scenes. It was filmed on a sound stage in the UK which is actually stunning--the cave looks so real and so imposing. The women are [carabining? rapelling? I’m not sure what the proper term would be] across large gaping chasms in the cave and the camera swoops around them, showing them dangling precariously from every angle, giving you a vertigo sensation and really making you feel that they are 1) in serious danger and 2) total badasses.  It’s also lit beautifully—you really believe that they are in pitch darkness throughout; it’s not like that horror movie thing where someone flicks open a Zippo and suddenly an entire room is cast in light. The portrayal of the darkness really adds to the claustrophobia effect, and I grab for my paper bag again. 

I don’t have any actual numbers on this, but I feel like this movie goes on for at least 70 of its 99 minutes without showing you a single monster. These humanoid creatures have evolved to live underground and crawl about on all fours but are spectacularly buff and fast, and attack by tearing at your insides. They are definitely frightening, but I honestly feel that they are secondary to the cave itself as the scariest threat of the film.

 The ‘crawlers’, as they’re called, are predators who hunt by sound like bats but can’t seem to sense their prey in any other way. I remember seeing this movie in the theater when it was released in the US and then going home to write a semi-snarky review somewhere on the internet about how it was just a liiiiittle absurd to think that creatures who live only in darkness and thus, lose their sense of sight, wouldn't also evolve into a stronger sense of smell to find their prey. That was eight years ago, though, and I no longer care about such plot points as long as stuff is scary. Also apparently bats can’t smell either, so who knows?

Luckily for our cast of cavers, the crawlers can’t differentiate between the feel of a rock and of human skin, nor can they sense fire (I truly am trying hard not to be snarky about this), because there is a pretty great scary scene where our heroine Sarah lies still on a rock while her torch burns nearby and one duder crawls right over her. I realize that in this depiction, the crawler looks like a weird laughing albino monkey man but I promise that they look better on screen. 

This scene comes pretty much back to back with my other favorite scene, in which Sarah fights a crawler in this disgusting pit of blood in the cave and emerges victorious, at which point (IRL) Amanda asked Kelly, “so would you rather skydive or swim in a pit of blood?”

We watched the DVD unrated director’s cut, which had a completely different—and darker and better—ending scene than the theatrical release. I highly, highly recommend tracking down this version of the movie because you will not regret it, I promise. It doesn't appear to be available on Netflix streaming but you can get the disc if you, unlike me, haven’t had a copy of Harry & the Hendersons for like well over a year. You can also stream it for just a couple bucks on Amazon or Google Play. You could also torrent it if you are an internet thief but I will tell you in a very stern voice that I am NOT currently torrenting The Descent Part 2 right now. I’m not.

I mean, I’m probably not. Well, I’ll let you know how it is.  

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