Movie Review: “The Descent”

So it was horror-movie night with some friends of mine tonight, and the movie of choice was The Descent (2005).  I wasn’t expecting much of it — I remembered the commercials from a few years ago, which seemed pretty cheesy — and actually was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a half-decent movie.  Not Oscar-material or anything, but a fun movie to watch, and not as horribly cheesy as most horror/suspense being produced these days.  If you enjoy horror movies, you’ll probably get some good enjoyment out of this one.  I do caution you against watching it, though, if you’re a terribly claustrophobic person.  Most of the action takes place underground, and the filmmakers do a good job of reminding the audience of that by creating very closed-in shots that sometimes left me feeling as though there wasn’t quite enough air in the room.

I’m going to warn you right now that the next couple of paragraphs are going to contain some spoilers, so if you’d like to see the movie without knowing beforehand what’s going on, I suggest you stop reading now.

First reason why I found this movie enjoyable: it’s actually got a really good setup.  The women are established right from the start as being an adventurous and thrill-seeking bunch, rather than just being a random group of people doing something foolish.  While the situation they get themselves into is a reckless one, they have a well thought-out reason for it: the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter has changed the dynamic of the whole group, and they’re trying to get back into the swing of something that they loved to do before.  Juno, especially, has something to prove: her affair with Sarah’s now-dead husband has left her wracked with guilt and feeling like a bad friend, so she’s more willing to take stupid risks to get the old feelings back.

Second reason why I found the movie enjoyable: while the women did make a lot of foolish moves (running around in the dark, calling out loudly to each other even after they’d figured out that the crawler-monsters hunted by sound, letting themselves get separated, etc), they weren’t your usual horror-movie heroines.  In a male-free environment, they weren’t just dumb blondes screaming for help; all of them managed to have brave and heroic moments through the film.  Sarah even managed to hit a sort of “Sigourney Weaver in Alien” kind of note on a few occasions.  But on the flip-side, none of them were unrealistically brave, strong or intelligent.  They all made mistakes, and most of them died for it.

Third reason the movie was enjoyable: the gory factor.  While some of the effects were pretty fake-looking (whoever did the blood effects clearly hasn’t bled enough in their life, because the “blood” looked really fake on many occasions — clearly a lot of corn syrup and guar gum being employed, and not necessarily in the right concentrations), most of them were actually pretty good.  The sounds, especially, were nice and squelchy.  In the limited lighting conditions, the choice to go with makeup effects rather than CGI was a good one, in my opinion.  In bright light many of the effects would have looked silly, but when things were being illuminated only by the light of a torch, it came out pretty darn cool.

Speaking of lighting effects, I mostly enjoyed the way that the lack of light was used to great effect throughout the film.  The various light-sources used (flare, helmet lamp, video camera, glow sticks, flaming torch) provided lots of variety to what would otherwise have just been a monotonous maze of cramped passages and stalactite-filled caverns.  I often noticed shadows going in the wrong directions (especially in the scenes with the glow-stick illumination), but that’s just the lighting designer in me coming out.  In most cases it was easily overlooked.

There were, of course, some things that I didn’t enjoy so much about the movie.  The crawler-monsters were the source of many of these eye-rolling moments:  while they were certainly creepy-looking enough, I found their actions to be really inconsistent.  In one scene they’d be cautiously stalking the girls, waiting for the right moment to strike, but in the next they’d be running forwards mindlessly.  In one scene their sense of hearing might be so acute that they can zone in on a girl by the sound of her breathing, but in the next scene the girls can actually be whispering to each other, only a few feet away from a crawler, and it doesn’t seem to notice them.  Nor did their behaviour seem like the sort of thing that any known predator might do; the way that they would keep attacking even after being injured was especially annoying.  In the wild, predatory creatures are cautious and avoid situations where they might get hurt, because an injury in the wild means almost certain death.  Finally, it made absolutely no sense to me how the crawlers seemed to have very sharp hearing (most of the time, at least), and yet none of their other senses were particularly sharp.  Creatures that live underground often lose the use of their eyes, yes, but such sensory loss is generally accompanied by all other senses growing stronger.  At the very least, the crawlers should have had more acute senses of smell and touch — but instead it seemed as though they couldn’t smell the girls even when standing right in front of them, and in one particular scene a crawler has its hand only inches away from Sarah’s burning torch, and it doesn’t react at all to the heat.

I had mixed feelings about the ending.  While I usually dislike anything that says “whoops, that was all just a dream sequence/hallucination/coma fantasy/drug-induced weirdness” …. I actually kind of liked the uncertainty at the end here.  Among other things, it was a welcome change from the usual “lone heroine survives the terrible ordeal” sort of ending that we’ve all seen far too much of in movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Halloween saga.  And I’m very happy that they didn’t try to tack on some cheesy “all our friends are dead, but we’re alive and we’re going to celebrate that and be okay!” kind of happy/uplifting ending:  I get very tired of happy endings, especially in movies where they just don’t belong.

So in conclusion, The Descent was definitely worth the time spent in watching it.  Not something I think I’d want to own, but worth a watch.

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