11 March 2011

Clarky's Review: The Descent

My choice this week and after a lacklustre effort a few weeks ago with Hatchet I wanted to bring something to the table that was suitably balls out (especially given how much stick I had taken from my fellow HC members for my review of Carrie, and the possibility that I may not even like horror......). In other words the pressure was really on to bring something top notch to the table.

At some point last week it came up in conversation that neither Fin or Ally had seen The Descent. My choice was made for me. It had been a while since I had seen The Descent, but at the time I remember it being terrifying, I was hoping that my memory wasn't tricking me.

I needn't have worried. The Descent is an excellent film. It is genuinely scary, unsettling (from pretty much the very first scene) and actually quite moving.

A slow burner, the film builds slowly and if you're a first time watcher the opening hour is scary enough without knowing what comes next. The potholing scenes feel incredibly claustrophobic and the sound design is excellent. Every scrape of the helmet, trickle of rocks or shuffle through hole barely bigger than the actors body sends a shiver down your spine, putting you firmly in the middle of the cave with them. Indeed some scenes are so dark that you become fully immersed in the picture, with the edge of the room and the film blurring together into a dark nothingness.

As if this weren't bad enough, the crawlers then turn up. Its not often you illicit a full blown jump at horror club anymore. We've all seen so many horror films that we seem to have become desensitised, or at least aware of what tricks filmmakers use to shock you. Yet, The Descent seems to have some fresh and innovative tricks. Primarily it shifts the focus of the film to that of a monster movie for last third. Therefore initially you become totally engrossed within the story of a group of girls trapped underground (which as noted above is scary enough in itself) so that when the crawlers do turn up you really are not expecting it. As I (re)discovered on Thursday when both Ally and Fin let out a full blown scream.

It was literally one of my greatest achievements at horror club.

I genuinely thought we had our first bottle job on the cards at one point when Ally asked how much longer was left and he realised there was still half an hour to go. This film was no joke. It wrings the tension out of every scene and then when the crawlers turn up it kicks off into another direction and onto another level. It even managed to get me to care about the group dynamic and changed my perception of Juno mid way through the film. Even when the crawlers attack the group dynamic and the individual relationships within the group continue to evolve. I literally can't get enough of this film.

A few years ago they released a sequel to The Descent, which is difficult to fathom given how the film ends. However, on doing some research this is because the American edit of film ends with Sarah escaping the cave and driving away in the car only to see the ghost / hallucination of Juno. For me, this deprives the viewer of one of the great endings of a modern horror film. How often do you see, any film, end on such a downbeat (yet at the same time almost positive) note as The Descent. It's a balls out ending for a balls out film, and nothing less than the viewer deserves in my opinion. It also stays with, and is far more deeply affecting than the US version.

Although some believe that the end of the American version is more open ended and less definitive, this argument seems to be undone by the fact that it allows for a sequel which is even more definitive in terms of what occurs in the film. I love the fact that at the end Sarah resigns herself to the fact that she is destined to die in the cave and, as a result, is reunited with her daughter, a year on with an extra candle on her cake (apparently a continuity error, if this is the case then it is one of the most fortunate continuity errors out there!).

From viewing the first film you can also read into it that The Descent is not just into the cave, or into hell, but is Sarah's descent into madness. Without medication and stuck in the cave she starts to have hallucinations (one of the side effects mentioned earlier in the film) and starts to lose her mind. No one else sees the crawlers, in fact it is only when she is holding the camera (which has been in Holly's hands for the entire film up until this point) that we see the crawlers properly for the first time. She is also the only one that hears them initially, which kind of sounds like a wee girls laugh. Is this a memory of her daughter laughing re-emerging as she goes slowly insane?

Are the crawlers real or has Sarah lost the plot after having such a tragic event inflicted upon her and gone buck wild killing all her friends in the process. Personally I believe that the crawlers are real (hopefully just in the film and not in real life). But part of the joy of The Descent is that it can work on these various levels and there is room for interpretation. Something which appears to have been lost with the arrival of the sequel.

For these reasons, as well as the fact that apparently Juno survives in The Descent 2 (meaning that one of the most balls out moments in The Descent loses some of its impact) means that I will be staying well clear of The Descent 2 just in case it impairs my huge enjoyment of the original.

Neil Marshall, who wrote and directed the film, paces the film excellently and fills every scene with an underlying tension. Primarily this is because of the cinematography and how little is actually seen on screen. Even if the scene is lit by more than a flashlight or their helmets it is bathed in the red glow of the flares giving it an even more sinister look! I also thought that he made a couple of nods to last weeks Horror Club showing (also about a young womans mental state after some shocking events) Carrie. Most notably the crazed look in Sarah's eyes when she is drenched in blood and the arm shooting out of the side of the hill, reminiscent of the prom scene and the final sequence in Carrie (also a dream).
I can't wait to see what Ally and Fin say in their reviews, mainly because I'm not sure how much of the film they actually saw. Fin, who to be fair was sitting in the seat of death and therefore must have felt like he was actually potholing at some points, seemed to be facing me for most of the film, whilst every time I looked round at Al he was lying down facing the back of the couch.

So Horror Club has ruined another activity for me. Potholing is now firmly added to the list of things that are now a no go area along with staying in the middle of nowhere (House of The Devil, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Wicker Man), camping (Friday the 13th), playing with puzzles (Hellraiser), swimming (Piranha 3D), babysitting (Halloween and House of The Devil- again!) and hanging out with gypsies (Drag Me to Hell and Big Fat Gypsy Wedding - some welcome relief after many HC viewings this year). An excellent film and highly recommended.

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