Saturday, August 19, 2006

Joe Scott Says, 'Fall into The Descent!'

When it comes to the scary movies that studios are ever so eager to pump out these days, there is something they forgot to learn: whenever audiences go to see them, they want to be, well, scared.

For a while now, it seems as though Hollywood misunderstood this desire. Audiences have been given movies with nothing but endless torture and heaping handfuls of fake-bloodied latex innards, rubbery brain matter, etc. Yes, we purchased tickets for these depraved films; yes, the fake guts and brains looked kinda real; and yes we did squirm, though not for the reason studios might have hoped. Movies like Hostel, Saw, and Saw II did not make me squirm because they were scary; the only reason we squirmed is because I were sickened by what I saw.
These movies are disgusting, and while there is an undeniable appeal within the human spirit to witness something gross, it certainly will not spark much repeat business. While many people drive slowly to stare the results of horrible car crashes, few people actually make a U-turn in order to go back and see them again (I would wager that the ones who do probably don’t see very many movies to begin with). It’s a cheap, view only once kind of deal, and that’s all she wrote – ‘Wham, splat, thank you ma’am!’

I was worried that horror filmmakers would never learn from their mistakes, that I would be doomed to a lifetime off mindless and dull wretch-fests (Hostel 2 or Saw III, anyone?). And honestly, I was almost ready to settle, to completely lower my expectations for a genre I love a great deal.

But then to my delight, director Neil Marshall changed everything.

Marshall is the director of The Descent, an English horror film about six women who go spelunking in a mysterious cave near Chattanooga, TN. Little do these women know, but a) the rocks in the cave tunnels shift to entrap them and b) there are horrible, Gollum-esque bat-monsters who eat anything with a pulse. IMDB lists these creatures as 'the crawlers’ and I was refreshed by how little I knew about them by the end of the film. So many genre movies seek to make the scary and unknown into the mundane and knowable via implausible monologues by brainy computer nerds played by Jeff Goldblum and actors of his ilk. Fortunately, if the cast of characters did have a horror-killing know it all, she at least had the good sense to shut the hell up.

Like all worthy horror films, The Descent succeeds not only by the horrors of its monsters, but by those within its human characters. To try and get out of the cave alive, the female protagonists find themselves doing terrible things for – and to – one another in order to survive. There is a scene of betrayal near the end of the film that was so gruesome, and yet completely understandable at the same time. Ultimately, The Descent is a case of situational ethics at its best.

Cinematographer Sam McGurdy may be responsible for most of the chills. McGurdy uses the limited sources of light one would find in a cave to create genuine tension; and when this horror machine gets rolling, he fills each canted frame with human skeletons and eerie red light.

Horror films move in trends. When one particular kind of movie appears to solicit rain from the box office skies, the rest of the studios will recreate that film’s elements ad nausea in an attempt to elicit the same effect. We have seen this happen with Japanese horror film remakes, American horror film remakes, and, lately, with large-budgeted torture porn. My only hope is that after the sizable success of The Descent, many mysterious, psychological, and well-shot copycats are soon to follow.


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