Monday, August 14, 2006

MOVIES: Descent

"I saw a really good horror movie this weekend," I told my friend Lew, "called The Descent." (Yes, I use hyperlinks in everyday conversation.)

"Is that the one about all the women who disagree with each other?" he asked.

I had to think about that one for a second. "No, not The Dissent!" I finally barked. "The Descent!"

"Oh, that's different." Very funny, Lew. Homophones are the lowest form of humor.

The Descent (as opposed to The Dissent, starring Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon, Ashley Judd, and Natalie Portman, opening in limited release at year's end in time to qualify for the Oscars*) is the story of a group of women who take annual wilderness adventure vacations together. This year, they go on a cave-diving expedition. Bad things happen. The end.

There honestly isn't much more to it than that, although, as with any well-made film, there's actually a lot more to it than that. From the poster image --

The Descent

-- which is an homage to Phillipe Halsman's "Dali Skull" (thanks to Jim Emerson's Scanners blog for pointing this out) --

Dali Skull

-- The Descent is filled with visual tributes, primarily to classic horror and suspense films, from Carrie to The Shining to Picnic at Hanging Rock to Deliverance to Nosferatu to Night of the Living Dead and beyond. But it also bursts with originality and invention, packing in more genuine shudders and jolts than any new horror film in quite a while.

The scares are better-earned in The Descent than in, say, a film like Hostel (which I liked, I'll remind you), which mostly relied on pure viciousness and gore to get the job done. There's plenty of gore in The Descent, but by the time the blood really begins to flow, the atmosphere of mystery, dread, and impending doom has already been fully developed; I was already on the edge of my seat, holding my breath, before the real nastiness commenced.

In part, this is due to my overwhelming fear of confined spaces -- not, like, "locked in a closet" confined spaces, but "buried alive, arms pinned to your side" confined spaces. Just watching these women thread their way through tunnels scarcely inches bigger than their bodies had my heart doing backflips. GOD, that's terrifying. Imagine getting stuck, trapped under thousands of tons of rock and earth, unable to move, unable even to breathe -- geez, I'm freaking myself out again. So, yeah, that stuff already had me upside-down. Another sequence, in which the women have to traverse a deep chasm, was also tremendously suspenseful -- remember the opening scene of Cliffhanger? Yes, the Sylvester Stallone movie. Say what you will about the rest of it, but that opening scene was intense. Same thing in The Descent.

As for the women themselves, they're mostly blank slates. Sarah, the main character, suffered a terrible tragedy following the women's adventure from the previous year. Juno, the leader of the expedition, knows more than she's saying. That's about it for backstory and motivation. But this is intentional; it lets you slide into the action with as little fuss as possible, and once the action gets going, there's scarcely a moment to catch your breath, let alone take a break for extended character development. This is streamlined scariness, pure energy and terror with an incredible visual style and reverence for horror history, and it's a fine accomplishment.

I don't want to say much about exactly what does happen to the women down in the caves. I agree with a number of critics who have decided it's better for the audience to discover that for themselves. Hopefully, you'll skip any spoiler-filled reviews, and just get yourself to the theater. This is a great horror flick; in fact, it's a damn fine film, period.

*Not really. But I bet I could totally write that movie. I picture it taking place at an all girls boarding school in turn of the century New England. No, it's a family reunion of quirky Southerners. No, wait! Suffragettes! And golf! Lady golfers, and suffragettes! And maybe witchcraft. That's a Best Screenplay for sure, and possibly a Best Supporting Actress for a surprisingly restrained, career-changing performance from Tara Reid. Don't steal my idea!!

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