Saturday, June 24, 2006

It's A Killer!

Day One of Being Boring's Coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival

Today, in our numbed cultural mores, it is exceptionally difficult to imagine how a film like Jaws could affect a whole era of people, making our parents afraid to go in the water. How Psycho could make their parents afraid to shower. And though this analogy has been used for countless B horror previews, typically without warrant, believe me when I say, 'I will never, for the rest of my life, go spelunking.' The thought of sliding through thick rock tunnels barely larger than your person is enough to get me squirming out of my skin. And I will admit, I am rather susceptible to hype. I ducked my way through 28 Days Later (to later rewatch it and find a deeply flawed film) and was completely traumatized when I saw The Blair Witch Project on a preview screener VHS, more inspired by the petrifying 'Is this true?' website which used the ambiguities of the dawn of internet technologies to sell their one-time-only movie. These sorts of films have become part of a large cultural ritual. But The Descent, I assure you, is one terrifying film which harks back to an older time when the film itself was the clincher. It's the kind of nail biting film that, when it finally unleashes its all (which, believe me, is quite a lot), you wonder how much more you can physically take.

The premise involves six thrill seeking ladies who, in search of a greater rush, descend into an uncharted cave. Things quickly become very problematic for our tough, while still uber-feminine heroines. Some egos inflame. Someone gets stuck. Someone breaks her leg. A passage collapses. And then, there's the crawlers.

Of course, the film is to its viewers what spelunking is to its ill-fated protagonists. It delivers a rush of exhilaration so extreme that I am hard pressed to find a comparable film with which to liken it. So dense is its tension that, when the women who remain begin to fight back, it arrives with such wanted gratification that I could not help but yelp and holler along with them as they wrestle, hack and gouge at the beasties. The film, impressively sure of its construction, takes great glee in the lavishness of its grostesqueries. In those fantastic moments of frenzy(films like Resident Evil could learn a great deal, here), the viewer, who is so unfathomably wrought with tension that the assaults come at them, just as they do the protagonists(but we, as viewers have the fortune of keeping our intestines, however knotted they may have become throughout the course of the film).

Director Neil Marshall possesses a seemingly casual finesse of the horror genre. Today, a typical horror film seeks more to startle its viewer than to scare them. Tension has become the new foreboding. You know the moment. A girl looks out of the window to investigate some spooky noise. In that relieved moment of calm, an owl beats its wings against the pane and the music crescendoes. You jump. It's a cheap ploy that is not scary. Unnerving, perhaps, but not scary. And though The Descent has its share of jumps, it seldom includes them without excusing itself for patronizing. Here, when you leap only to friend a friend, animal or non-crawler, it is almost always followed by some sort of visual pun, making fun of its own formula.

The establishing sequence, which carries its own load of trauma, starts the film off with an assured confidence, reminiscent of early DePalma. It becomes quite clear that this analogy is self-imposed as Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), resembling a young Sissy Spacek, at one point emerges from a pool of blood in a complete visual homage to Spacek's most famous scene in Carrie. It is Marshall's remarkable knowledge of Horror film history that makes The Descent eligible for inclusion in such a lineage. It is, dare I say, the best horror film to come out of this decade. The Descent is certainly not for the faint of heart, but then, what horror film is?

The Descent, which has been picked up by Lion's Gate Pictures, hits theaters August 4th.


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