Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Descent

by Brian
The Descent is obviously one of the better reviewed horror films of recent years, but I just don’t get why. Now, I’ll readily admit that I’m generally not much of a horror film, but I also feel that a good movie is a good movie, and a bad movie is a bad movie. This is a bad one.

Let me count the ways:

1) The scares Seeing this movie compared to movies like Jaws, I expected there to be some kind of strong psychological element to the horror, but no such luck. Every single scare in the movie is of the character-turns-around-and-there’s-something-suddenly-there variety. I don’t mean that this happens two or three times - it’s probably a dozen or so in all. It’s no different than every stupid cheap horror movie that comes down the pike, and it’s a completely illegitimate way to scare people. And obviously, since you know it’s coming, every single time, it stops being scary anyway. Real quick.

2) The story … which doesn’t make any real sense at all. I would have been much happier if the filmmakers had at least made an effort to make the cave people credible - how do they live down there, really? - but I guess that requires more effort than having something jump out every time a character turns around. Anyway, there are a bunch of cave people that apparently single-handedly keep the deer population in North Carolina under control, in an area that isn’t even very remote (there’s a road to it!), and nobody knows it. And not one or two cave people, but hundreds, maybe thousands.

*spoiler* Now, a word about this. The US version cut the original ending, which made things much more ambiguous, and which is available on YouTube. This ending does kinda, sorta solve the credible cave people problem, but it has severe problems all its own, the basic one being that it’s basically a cop-out and ambiguous only for the sake of ambiguity. Frankly, I think the movie worked better without it.*end spoiler*

I was also disappointed that the last third of the film descended (pun intended) into a silly gorefest. There had been elements, albeit underdeveloped, of some sort of thematic arc involving Sarah’s grief over her dead husband and child, but that really doesn’t play out during the third act. Instead, it’s turns into a very standard exploitation film, the kind of movie that thinks it’s clever cover one of its characters in blood - just like Carrie! I say, save it for Scary Movie 5.

3) The acting These girls are all pretty terrible. Even several positive reviews have acknowledged the weakness here, but it’s worth bringing up. Again, standard exploitation fare.

So, what is it that I missed?


Anonymous Nick said...

Response forthcoming. Just need to dig out my psychology textbooks and some gender study books an ex left when she left.

8/31/2006 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

So, what is it that I missed?

Dude, everything.

Seriously, sometimes I think you write some of this stuff just to tick me off. Just a little.


Not sure if I should address your critique point by point, so I'll just start off with some general thoughts.

If a horror film does not scare you, then you'd of course have a pretty good cause for criticism, since it didn't do what, I think we can all agree on, is supposedly its main job. Didn't do it for you, at least. No matter how great my persuasive powers be it'd be pretty impossible trying to make you think it was scary. That front is lost already.

I have to say I'm a bit surprised though. That car crash didn't scare you? Made me fall off my fucking chair.

Of course, perhaps to you that too was "a completely illegitimate way to scare people", which I have to say is one of the funniest lines I've read in days. Classic. What exactly are the "legitimate" ways to scare people?

I suppose this is where the "I expected there to be some kind of strong psychological element to the horror" element (argument?) comes in?

Now, I did not know that the US cut the original ending. I mean the ending I saw (which, yeah, is the one on youtube) was great. Is great. Giving a film some ambiguity is a cop-out? Say what? It gives the film depth. It allows for a new, and up until then not as obvious explanation for the events. And gives the film a very fucking strong psychological element to the film. Also helps with the theme of the film.

(Seriously, who is ambiguous here? It "kinda, sorta solve the credible cave people problem" but it's "ambiguous only for the sake of ambiguity." No, if it does the former it's sort of hard of it to be the latter, right? And you complain of the film lacking "some sort of thematic arc involving Sarah’s grief over her dead husband and child, but that really doesn’t play out during the third act." You get it with the original ending?)

The title itself is a good indicator towards the film's themes. It's not just a descent down a series of caves, it's what one can either interpret as a descent down madness or an inner primeval animal. Descent towards instinct, what have you.

No strong psychological element? The whole thing's a proper Freudian nightmare, a real psychological gender-bender. I can't believe you did not pick up on this.

So we have five girls. One who is the victim of losing her husband and child. Another is a bitch. Then a mother, and a daughter. And what someone could interpret as a dyke(lesbian?)/free wild-child or all of those. So we have what amounts to five of the most common female stereotypes. This is not common script-writer prejudice/laziness. I'd argue it's one of the most interesting feminist films ever made. Damn straight.

Five women. Most of them pretty strong-willed, independent. I'd interpret the fact that they go spelunking together, an otherwise pretty male-dominated sport I dare assume, to be somewhat feminist.

And they descend down a cave? Seriously. A cave. Sexual innuendo no big hit at your house? Later on one of them falls into a big pool of blood. You just have to get this one. And this pool is surrounded by lots of bones. Come on now. Give you a clue; pro-choice.

And in there, deep down there in their 'cave,' they find primitives, in all respects animals, monsters hungry for flesh and blood. Am I bending your view my way, yet?

The strong psychological element present in the film surrounds these women, characterised by their roles - their stereotypes - and having to abandon them. The bitch, for example, dies because she won't stop being a bitch. If she had, she might have lived. Of course, on the other hand, her hard will is what keeps her alive for so long. In the end there is only one who does abandon the role given to her, and of course she is the one who lives.

The feminist streak is in the typical female victim turning monster against the monsters. Or perhaps the victim being the monster? God knows, women are portrayed as simple victims too often in films. Also why I had no problem with what you refer to as "a descent into a silly gorefest." I was rooting for her by then, women are seldom women of action in film, and I thought it was well done, edited and all. Besides, one could also see it as her defeating her inner demons, psychological or innate primitive they may be.

I can agree with you that the acting was maybe the weakest aspect, but while I wasn't dazzled by the acting, I had no great problems with them either. I thought they played their roles well. No big complaints really.

And I can't really agree with you that the scares were all 'there’s-something-suddenly-there' scares. I was practically biting nails when they were climbing over the abyss by rope. Simple, and effective suspense, and later emotion. I mean, it built its suspense pretty well. And the combination of fear of the dark, heights and claustrophobia, is a pretty cool combo.

I won't get into the whole argument of whether the cavemen monsters are realistic or not. The argument is pointless.

9/04/2006 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

All right, been wanting to get back into this for days. I’ll reiterate Nick’s spoiler warning, as I’m spilling the beans big-time here.

I'll start out by saying that a cave doesn't strike me as particularly sophisticated sexual innuendo. I mean, the Bloodhound Gang's video for "Foxtrot Unicorn Charlie Kilo" featured women operating jackhammers. Perhaps that's got you writing volumes on feminism as well?

Further more, I'll be honest, I didn't really pick up on the different stereotypes that you lay out. I just didn't see that much difference in the characters. Everyone except Juno and Holly seemed pretty much the same to me. Sarah got more screen time, so she was naturally a bit more developed, but I didn't really notice any character traits that made her radically different from the other three. I don't even remember the other two. They didn't register as characters or even stereotypes to me; they were just glorified extras … cannon fodder.

Furthermore, I didn't pick up on Holly being a dyke (I assume that's who you mean). Is this because she had short hair? Is that all it takes? Because there really wasn't much to go on. If anything, I thought Marshall might have been going for some sexual tension between Sarah and Juno, but even at that there wasn't really anything there.

I agree that Holly was a stock character of sorts - the annoying character that we want to see die. And, of course, she's the first to do so, which seems much more in line with my reading of it being empty exploitation. Like any good carnival huckster, Marshall knows how to give the people what they want!

As for the scares, I call jumping out and scaring people “illegitimate” because it’s something that absolutely anyone can do. See every dumbshit horror movie ever made for examples. There’s no filmmaking skill involved whatsoever - you point the camera somewhere, then swish it back the other way and add a music sting. That’s it. You can always get people to jump at it, but is it scary? No, it’s a filmmaker’s last resort when he doesn’t have any actual scares.

And the crossing-the-abyss scene that you liked … well, these things have become pretty routine by now, haven’t they? I seem to remember seeing almost the exact same scene play out in, um, gosh, what’s that movie? The one where the first one makes it across without a problem, but the last one almost falls, while the others hold on and pull him/her to safety at the last minute? OH YEAH! It was every action movie ever made.

Here’s a question: what if they had all made it across without a hitch? In fact, what if the whole expedition went off without a problem except for some creepy scenery and a few odd sound effects, and maybe even the monsters sneaking in and out of frame now and again, until they stumbled across the monsters’ lair? What if the movie had earned a feeling of dread instead of trying constantly to force one with contrived crises every ten minutes?

And as for the ending, you say it gave the movie depth, but I would maintain that the reason the new explanation was “not as obvious” is because there was just no prior indication that the possibility existed that the monsters were fake. I’m still not sure how that is even supposed to work; when you apply this interpretation the movie doesn’t really make sense.

Did Sarah actually kill everyone in a fit of madness? If so, that doesn’t really fit with the hospital dream sequence, where something seems to be chasing her, and at any rate Juno was the only one of the others that was presented as an antagonist to her character. Or maybe the events up to that point (in a chronological sense) were real, and she imagined killing Juno and making her escape? I suppose that makes some sense, but what’s the point of that? There’s a million possible explanations, but none of them really add anything, and I’m sorry, but it’s just not the kind of movie where not knowing in and of itself adds a whole lot.

Oh, and finally, I thought this was funny: “women are seldom women of action in film”. Dude, this isn’t the opening of Aliens in 1986 that we’re talking about here. We’ve seen women as action heroes constantly for years now. There’s no way the novelty could have possibly survived the Tomb Raider movies, is there? Hopefully, I misunderstanding what you meant. But if not, hey, Dead or Alive comes out in Sweden in just one short month!

9/14/2006 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I really, really want to see Dead Or Alive.

As for the rest of your opinions, I'll go over them more closely later. Suffice to say they don't quite hold up.

Lara Croft and Ripley... then what? Like I said, seldom.

9/14/2006 05:41:00 PM  

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