Saturday, October 29, 2016

31 Days of Horror: THE DESCENT (2005)

Welcome horror fans, to Day 29 of the 31 DAYS OF HORROR! We are back with another film in our lead up to Halloween, and today we will be reviewing the tale of a caving expedition gone horribly wrong...THE DESCENT.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. The Descent follows a group of women who gather each year to have outdoorsy adventures. As the film opens, the group are completing a white-water rafting trip, where they are met by the husband and young daughter of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), a member of that august company. Hubby asks Sarah to leave with him, and the rest of the group lets her go. While driving back to the hotel, Sarah and her family are involved in a vehicle collision, and Sarah's husband and daughter are killed. Sarah is badly injured, but survives.

If it sounds like I'm glossing that part of the story over, know that I'm telling you everything there is to know about that exceptionally brief prologue. The Descent really does introduce us to Sarah's family only to kill them off in the next scene. We barely have time to learn that they existed at all, and this, sadly, sets the tone for the story to come.

One year passes, and the group gets back together for another expedition, this time a bit of caving (or "spelunking", if you like calling things by their true names). Sarah, healed in body if not in mind, joins, and the group sets out. Deep in the woods they find their cave, and the expedition starts pleasantly enough. Then their entrance is blocked by a cave-in. Then the group become lost. Then the monsters come out. The cave, it turns out, is inhabited by man-shaped creatures that hunt like bats. The movie calls them "crawlers", at least in the credits, and it's in the claustrophobic darkness of that primordial warren that our story plays out. That story is simplistic, unworthy of a feature-length film, and really no more than you would expect, except for a plot development that is supposed to be shocking. Unfortunately, this particular "twist" is a favorite trope of movies involving groups of women, and would have been mundane under the best of circumstances. That it shows up here is kind of silly in the greater context of the situation, and only serves as lazy motivation for later events.

The story of The Descent would have been more at home in the pages of one of those lurid horror comics from the 1970s, probably something published by Marvel. They really knew how to sell a story for shock value, and the cover for this one writes itself: "Trapped ... in the Lair of the BAT-MEN! Terror waits in the darkness ... DEATH, the only ESCAPE!" What would have made a perfectly serviceable eight- to ten-page graphic yarn is instead stretched to 90 minutes of fight, run, hide, scream a bit, repeat. Characters are left shallow and undeveloped, even by horror movie standards, and the film never manages to instill in us the hope that these women will escape the situation they've gotten themselves into. The movie thus becomes background noise with pictures.

The Descent should be viscerally terrifying, since its story hinges on two of the most primal human fears: darkness, and the unknown. But a film's setting will only get you so far, and so the characters, through which the audience experience the story, must pick up the slack. With the characters in this case kept so stubbornly anonymous, I had no reason to care about any of them. This left me without that vital narrative piece that makes the difference between enjoying a good horror story and just watching people die. The ending of this film meant nothing to me.

I am aware that a sequel exists. It was called The Descent: Part 2, and released in 2009. But since this first movie offers no mystery or other compelling reason why I should want more of this tedium, I will be leaving the follow-up unknown to me. The Descent might be a fun movie to watch at a sleepover with the lights off, but much like caves themselves, it is empty, cold, and only briefly interesting.

The Descent is rated R for strong violence, gore and language.

Robert's Score: 1/10

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