Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Descent

Let's talk about movies... Happy Halloween everybody!! This week I bring you a special review, a little ahead of schedule, in honor of All Hallows Night. I've always appreciated horror films that broke out of the expected casting mold. More often than not there is a formula that's followed when putting together a cast, no matter what the plot. You have your hero/heroine, the slightly slutty girl, the virginal girl, the goofy sidekick, and the sarcastic asshole. Those are the broadest and most commonly seen horror film archetypes; and I love them for what they are. Don't get me wrong, they're comforting like an old hat or long-term relationship. But you need to break out of the mold every once in awhile and shake it up. This week's selection has the original twist of an all female cast.

This week on deck: The Descent

How it came to my attention: Saw it in theaters and reunited with it during a DVD splurge in college. Decided to watch it again to see how well it's held up over time.

Going into it: I vaguely remember being terrified when watching it years ago. 

Coming out of it: Was thrown into a tailspin of introspection and floored by the deeply impactful philosophy behind the film. 

The Review/Recommendation:

Watch It: The Descent does exactly what it promises it will do. It terrifies you. Not only with blood and guts and monsters, but with cold psychological truths as well. We can pretend that humanity is universal and that when push comes to shove the better nature in all of us will prevail. That is true in many cases, especially when ones own well being is not called into jeopardy. The Descent portrays with chilling accuracy the brutality of human nature. The nature that will, at its very core, care only about self-preservation. The epitome of this is portrayed in the character Juno. This film shows that even in the best of us, as with Sarah, there is still the potential for ruthlessness. There are powerful visuals and a haunting musical score to accompany the thrills and chills. So watch this movie with your nearest and dearest and look around the room afterward. Can you trust everyone you love and who loves you? We can only ever truly know our own minds and selves. But after watching this film, even that is called into question. The horror here is not anything created by monsters; the horror in The Descent is made entirely by man.

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The Recap (will most certainly contain spoilers): The film opens on a few ladies (Juno-played by Natalie Mendoza, Sarah-played by Shauna Macdonald, and Beth-played by Alex Reid) white-water rafting down some pretty intense rapids in Scotland while Sarah's husband Paul (played by Oliver Milburn) and daughter (played by Molly Kayll) watch along the shore cheering them on. They dock the raft and climb out and I'm sensing an undercurrent of tension between Juno and Paul that both Beth and Sarah pick up on to some degree, but ignore. The idyllic facade is an early precursor to the rest of the film, letting us know that nothing will be as it seems. Two minutes in and they've got me hooked.

Sarah and her family begin driving back to their lodging but get into an accident where both father and daughter die. Sarah wakes up in the hospital sometime later looking like Million Dollar Baby and breaks down sobbing in the middle of the hallway whilst passersby ignore her like she's a hobo asking for a dollar. Not even a wayward glance gets thrown at her; I can't tell if its out of respect or sheer indifference to the human plight.    

We flash to the Appalachian Mountains a year later where the group plus a few have met to reconnect. They're staying in what can only be kindly termed a cabin. We meet sisters Sam (played by MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (played by Saskia Mulder) along with newcomer Holly (played by Nora-Jane Noone). The group reminisces and laughs through the night and we see the gentle side of life; the easy camaraderie between people who have no doubts about seeing their next day. 

Morning comes and we follow Juno on her jog and then cheery wake-up calls to the group. They get together and take a group photo but even the shutter clicking sounds ominous followed by a black and white rendering of the image that I look at wondering who, if anyone, other than Sarah will ever look at again. Given her previous tragedies if anyone is making it out alive, it's her. The group heads out on the road toward Boreham Caverns, from all descriptions an easy system to spelunk. But things are just a little bit off and I'm smelling bullshit in the air anytime Juno opens her mouth. One of the group starts listing off all the rules and things that can go wrong with caving. Now I know what rules they'll definitely be breaking and all the things that will most likely happen to them. But at least they make time to stop and poke a dead deer with a stick. Priorities and all. 

They reach the mouth of the cave and rappel down. After a few minutes admiring nature's beauty, Sarah gets the shit scared out of her by a horde of bats. They start crawling through a tiny passage following Juno and are led to an underground cavern where they light some red red flares giving the scene an eery feeling. They break for lunch and some awkward conversation between Juno and Sarah before they head out on the next passage. I'm not really claustrophobic but neither love nor money could get me to go through something that tight. Sarah is the last to go, gets stuck, freaks out, and makes it out narrowly avoiding being crushed to death by a cave-in. 

We find out now that they aren't in the Boreham Caves but an entirely unknown system and therefore cannot count on any rescue but their own. After some bitching and bickering they press onward into another open crevasse which they have to cross. Rebecca free climbs across to set the rope line for the others and I'm pretty sure she's a BAMF, hands down. Juno free climbs last to save the rope they already have. A piton fails and Juno slams into the rock face but is helped up by the group. Rebecca injures her hand in the process of saving Juno. They see a cave painting depicting two ways out and move on. We see the first glimpse of our monster in an alcove off the cave, drooling and clicking like a bat. 

The group finds a likely passage and Holly dives headlong into it first, recklessly pursuing an exit. She slips and is caught by Juno before she falls into a hole. Juno can't hold on and Holly falls and breaks her leg on the way down. That son of a bitch snapped and is poking out of her leg like a turkey's wishbone. If you're squeamish you'll want to look away for the next few minutes. Sarah wanders off and sees a Golem-like creature ahead in the tunnel. They disregard Sarah and move forward dragging an injured Holly. They might as well be dragging a bleeding gazelle across the plains. The group stumbles across an underground boneyard filled with the skeletons of dead animals. They panic and start screaming; Voldemort's second cousin pops in for a visit.  

The group freaks out again and runs but is cut off by the cave crawler and it rips out Holly's throat. Juno sees Holly's still alive (her pupils dilate) and tries to save her but is held off by the crawler. Sarah sprints into a tunnel and slips, hitting her head while falling into another cave. Juno is still fighting the crawler for Holly with her pickaxe when another crawler attacks her from behind. She kills it but her battle reflexes cause her to spin around and attack the threat behind her before realizing it's Beth and she stabs the axe into Beth's throat. Beth falls to the ground and clutches Juno's necklace. She reaches out to Juno, but a stunned Juno backs out of the cave and leaves Beth to die. I'm pretty sure that's grounds for removing someone from your Christmas Card list.

Sam and Rebecca have splintered off from the group and are followed by a crawler. Sarah wakes up and finds human remains in the cave where she fell. She stumbles across Holly being eaten by the crawlers and is forced to watch in order to remain hidden. Rebecca and Sam huddle in a cave while Juno goes to look for Sarah. We observe that while the crawlers appear human in origin they look like blind, slimy albinos who have evolved to live underground and navigate purely by echolocation.

An alarm on Sam's watch goes off and she chucks it away. Juno starts yelling again, drawing the crawlers to her while Sarah lights a torch and the sisters keep looking for a way out. They are pursued by crawlers before being saved by Juno; she convinces them to go look for Sarah (who has discovered Beth still alive) . Beth tells Sarah what Juno did to her and Sarah doesn't believe her until she discovers Juno's pendant in her hand that Beth tells her Paul gave to Juno. It has his saying "Love Each Day" written on the back. Sarah comes to the realization that not only did Juno mortally wound her best friend, she had an affair with her husband. Beth asks Sarah to kill her to end her suffering and Sarah, though reluctant, does so with mercy. 

Sarah then kills two crawlers while Sam and Rebecca are killed elsewhere by ever more crawlers. There seems to be an unending amount of these things down in the caves. I find it hard to believe that they have gone undiscovered with the amount they would need to consume to sustain such a large population. Juno escapes the crawlers that killed Rebecca and Sam and is helped by Sarah who asks her what happened to the others and, specifically, if she saw Beth die. Juno says she did and you can see something change in Sarah's eyes when she hears Juno's lie. 

The pair explore for a way out and fight off another group of crawlers after which Sarah reveals to Juno the pendant she got from Beth. Neither one of them say a word and yet there's a whole conversation. Accusation, affirmation, condemnation, and finally judgement. Sarah stabs Juno's kneecap with a pickaxe and leaves her, wounded, to face an oncoming horde of crawlers. Sarah forges on and we hear Juno's last screams before Sarah falls down a hole knocking herself unconscious... Again. I mean, seriously, how many times is she going to fall down a hole, knock herself out and wake up untouched? There are a million monsters in that cave, who has that kind of luck? There's light on Sarah's face and she regains consciousness to see a small path toward daylight. Sarah desperately scrambles up a pile of bones heading to the surface and breaks free to the outside world. It's almost surreal when she makes it to her car and drives off. She stops at the side of the road and throws up, turning to find an apparition of a dead Juno sitting next to her in the passenger seat. 

Sarah wakes up back in the cave and we discover she never made it out. She again sees her daughter sitting in front of her with a birthday cake and lit candles. We hear the crawlers drawing closer and see that Sarah is only staring at her torch. Oblivious to the danger, Sarah smiles as the screen cuts to black. Credits roll.

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