Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, April 17, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Wow. This mediocre and very derivative British horror movie has finally beached itself onto our shores riding a massive tsunami sized wave of online hype and hope. It's really nothing more than your run of the mill "old dark house" plot, with a group of young women who get lost in some caves instead of a house or a spaceship or a summer camp or the outback and are picked off one by one by some creatures who look like relatives of Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings". These underground dwellers may have once been human but have since evolved to live and hunt in total darkness. And that's about it.

Technically well made, writer-director Neil Marshall has obviously kept his DVD player spinning for days studying all of the classics and simply taking wholesale everything he needed like a Vanilla Ice "Under Pressure". But the elements he's Frankensteined together do not cohere into anything resembling a good story, instead seeming like an anthology of classic horror riffs-a kind of "Horror Movies for Dummies" primer.

Which makes it all the more bizarre is that it's the horror film fans themselves that have hyped this movie up on the net.When false hype is fed by desperate hope the results are insane blurbs like, "The greatest horror film of the last 10 years" or "The best cave dwelling mutant horror movie since 'The Mole People'!". It only demonstrates how bad the horror genre has become, that fans will go into orgasmic exhaltations over almost any movie that will risk an R-rating in the US multiplex market.

The true horror lies in the fact that Marshall seems to have real talent as a film director and could actually make some authentic horror classics if given better source material. The material provided here is paper thin: After a tragic prologue lifted from the screenplay structures of "The Changeling" "Don't Look Now" and "Dead Calm", "The Descent" settles into it's main narrative of six young ladies who decide to reclaim a sense of youthful danger in their responsible adult lives by going on a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. However, one of them, the American, Juno, decides to lead them to an unmapped and far riskier cave without their knowledge to increase the danger and the excitement. This, of course, proves to be the classic "really bad idea" and a few intense arguments, suspenseful traps and cave-ins later, the horror begins-photographed in scenes so dark they look as though they could've been shot in your basement with the lights off.

There are several quite capably directed jump out of your seat moments, but these all appear quite cheap when you try and follow the logic of the storyline which soon fades into the darkness. A horror film meant to be a surreal fever dream is one thing;"Phantasm" and "Suspiria" never intend to make conventional sense and we're never annoyed. This movie, however, wants to be taken seriously on some level as a real narrative, with some effort to display a mini morality play as well between several of the characters. When the movie works, it ditches the tiresome character material and focuses on the "haunted house" styled shock machine. Marshall knows that these old movie tricks still work and does a quite reasonable job of playing with the whole "now you see me,now you don't" cinematic game. For a short while at least, you feel as though you are watching the genuine article: a new cult classic horror film. But this is soon swept away amid a series of shots and plot turns that appear to be an homage to classic horror cinema.

This "genuine article" turns out to be a Xerox of a Xerox even using a second generation dub of the Ennio Morricone soundtrack from John Carpenter's "The Thing". If we can agree for the moment that "homage" is actually French for "rip-off", that would seem to explain, finally, the appeal of this over-hyped flick to many tired fans. For what is more gratifying to a life long horror movie fan than to watch a movie which is a kind of 90 minute shout out to them. "Hey, man, that's the helicopter shot from 'The Shining'", "Bet you dudes pick up on the reference to 'Apocalypse Now'!", "...the arm is from 'Carrie'", "...or maybe it's the hand in 'Deliverance'","It's definitely the broken leg from 'Deliverance'", "Everything from 'Alien' and 'Aliens'?" We could go on, but why? Yes, Neil Marshall and I like alot of the same movies. I own all of those movies on DVD myself. I just don't feel the urge to do my Karaoke version of them for the fanboys. Especially if I possessed the technical skills of Marshall who perhaps one day will make the genuine article he so admires, creating new classic images and moments that others will feel inspired to copy- beginning the whole cycle anew.



Download Movies said...

It is very refreshing to see a horror film which not only respects but reveres its female characters and allows each to have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Uncanny Ed said...

Like Alien? Or Aliens? Or Halloween? Of Friday the 13th? Or Dawn of the Dead? Or A Nightmare On Elm Street? Or any number of films from a genre so well known for strong female characters?