Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Catching up with the (super) classics of horror, part III: We're having an adventure, just like the Goonies!


2005 (The United Tyranny)/2006 (Freedomland)
Written and directed by Neil Marshall
With Shauna Macdonald (Sarah), Natalie Mendoza (Juno), Alex Reid (Beth), Saskia Mulder (Rebecca), Myanna Buring (Sam), and Nora-Jane Noone (Holly)

We've all missed movies that we should've seen.  Here are three of mine, that might surprise you.

Spoiler alert: high

My weak excuse for never seeing it:  I thought it was a softcore porno.  Turns out it's a movie about women who go exploring a cavern, with both long pants and proper safety equipment.  Possibly a cinema first.
Why I'm watching it now: Because every thoughtful horror fan and Roger Ebert can't be wrong.

Apparently they're making a distaff Expendables movie with female action stars.  Yet with the minor caveat that it stars six people you've likely never heard of, that movie's kind of already been made, and it was called The Descent.  Surely, though, if Shauna Macdonald doesn't participate in The Expendabelles, that project's legitimacy must crumble into dust.  After all, Neil Marshall's masterpiece is not just a work of effective horror.  It's alsomoresoamongst the single purest examples of 1980s badass cinema to have been made since 1991.  (80s badass cinema could hardly be caged by anything as puny as a single decade.)

Unlike the Expendables series' apparent fixation on Ramboesque jungle warfare, however, The Descent draws from the same well as the best 80s badass cinema: science fiction.  Specifically, science fiction so underbaked that if you thought about its propositions for even a minute, an entire film movement would become untenable.  The Descent is disinterested in building any mythology, instinctively recognizing that this is a major reason that the later entries into 80s badass franchises trend toward tedium.  Instead, The Descent tells a story as simple as the most elegant bygone super-classics.  Its cinematic reference points are legion, but The Descent borrows most heavilyin its tone, its premise, and even some of its specific plot pointsfrom a heady melange of Predator, Alien, and Aliens.  These are not unworthy masters; and like them, The Descent winds up so good it can't help but bleed metaphor at every turn.  Here we are offered a literal hell, made of a survivor's guilt.

A year after her daughter and her daughter's father's deaths, our hero Sarah is wrenched away from her grief by her best friend, the kindly teacher Beth, and by her best frenemy, the hypercompetent egomaniac Juno.  (Spoiler: if this were an all-male cast instead, Juno would have been played by Sean Bean.  Natalie Mendoza shares his gusto for conflicted self-aggrandizement and confused treachery.)  Sarah's reintroduction to the world takes the form of their shared enthusiasm for extreme sports, this time a caving expedition.  They're joined by an additional trio of likeable two-note characters: Rebecca (older than the rest, protective of her sister); Sam (pre-med student, younger sibling of Rebecca); and Holly (sketch of a punk rocker, obsessed with photography).  The six arrive in North Carolina, as played by Scotland.

I was in North Carolina two weeks ago to climb a mountain, and I can't tell the difference.  It is also true that my attention was focused upon not falling off the mountain.

Please permit me to note that The Descent, before it had a chance to do almost anything else, made me want to punch it, thanks to its xenophobic caricature of the Carolinassomething it somehow accomplishes without depicting a single native.  The Descent's antipathy includes, naturally, the affectation of a broad Southern accent for comedic purposes.  This is their right, of course, because Scottish and northern English accents are impossible to mock.

Our heroes enact the title of the film until a cave-in traps them on the wrong side of the entrance.  At this juncture comes a revelation: no one knows they're here and this isn't even the cave Juno told everybody it was.  It's an unexplored system that she wanted to claim, ostensibly "for Sarah," although no one, including Sarah, believes this for one second.  The short version: if they don't find another exit to the cave, they'll die.  The longer version adds, "and they're not alone."

The Descent's pacing is admirably restrained: it's a real while, before we know for sure that something else is in there with them.  It's a bit longer, still, before we know that Sarah and her friends aren't just trapped, they've intruded upon a nest of veritable H.U.D.s.

...They're not, technically, cannibalistic.

There's an argument to be made that The Descent could have been just as amazing if it had eschewed its horde of depersonalized science-vampires and maintained itself as a severe survival film.  I'll make a variant of that argument: it might have been a superior horror film.  The scariest sequences in The Descent have everything to do with the slow death promised by the cave, and much less to do with the exit promised by the gauntlet of creatures who are, let's be honest, significantly worse at killing than human beings.  (They're blind; they hunt by their sense of hearing, which isn't terribly good; they aren't any stronger than a man; and certainly they don't wield any deadly technology, like axes or fire.  By body count, anyway, the war between surface and underworld depicted in The Descent decisively favors us.)

I have the same complaint about the xenomorphs, times infinity, but at least no one is talking complete nonsense about turning these things over to Juno's biological weapons division.

If the setting is scarier than the monsters, their advent is still nothing to be sad about: the tone shifts from a perfect survival film into an equally perfect hybrid of action and horror.  Rendered in their brutish makeup, the cave-dwellers remain threatening, despite their handicaps in the face of tool-using hominids.  More importantly, this is their turf: when they have numbers or surprise on their side, which is pretty much constantly, they're deadly.  But maybe most importantly, they are morally acceptable to exterminate, en masse.

The fiends oblige the audience whenever they get a chance: they get their eyes gouged out, their genitals crushed, their skulls smashed like cantaloupesand this is the part where I mention that The Descent uses the ultraviolent practical gore of horror for the purposes of furthering its badass action bona fides, and it is awesome.  Sometimes it remains harrowing (particularly when the H.U.D.s score a point on Team Sapiens), but it's always radical.

The staging is modern, however: The Descent borrows its action vocabulary not from Alien or Predatorhell, it's only speaking the same language in a few, more suspenseful sequencesbut from Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator.  This is because The Descent came out in 2005, when the fad for decreased shutter angleand the stuttery look it offers, similar to an SNES game overburdened by enemy spriteswas still in bloom.  I have a soft spot for that technique, though, and rarely has it looked better, or been more effective at impressing the sheer desperation of combat.  Far more miraculously, the same can be said of the quick-cut editinga fad I fear will never end, but nonetheless cannot be even mildly complained of here.

Indeed, The Descent is on the short list of the most beautiful horror movies, and of the most beautiful action movies, ever made.  But discussing that now would take us off the topic of its wonderful violence, and I'm not done with it.

Nor is The Descent itself: lest you feel that the human factor is missing from this splatterfest, the nastiest violence in the film is undertaken by the women against each other.  Sometimes it's an accident; sometimes it's a mercy; sometimes it's revenge.  The climax of the film pits the penultimate survivor against the one who got us into this delightful mess.  (Beyond obviously, the former is SarahI doubt any man, woman, or child has ever been more clearly marked-out as a Final Girl in the history of all slasher-like cinema.)

This is to the good, but in the screenplay's only genuine weakness, Sarah has been given something like one billion completely independent reasons to murder Juno and blame it on cave monsters.  Ignoring that the last thing a badass actioner needs is complex, multifactorial character motivations, one of Sarah's reasons just stinks.  Turns out Juno had been sleeping with Sarah's man, which is a weird straw to break the camel's back when the camel has already been recklessly led to watch all her other friends die in a cave, and borne that weight with reasonable grace.  Retroactively, it makes the entire film fail the old Bechdel Test, despite an entire film's worth of conversations between the all-female principal cast about non-man subjects.  This is a pity.  In another movie, it could easily go unremarked, but not here: The Descent is, after all, an unparalleled exercise in developing great, interesting female action heroes (with a real emphasis on upper-body strength, at that).  A single, imperfect choice undermines it.

Grieving mother or spurned lover: choose one.  (Oh God, it doesn't matter.  Just look at her!)

Look and just be amazed, really; I forgot what we were talking about.

I said The Descent is just outrageously beautiful.  This is so true that my ignorance of it made me feel like more of a shithead than anything else in this retrospective.  But to get the obvious out of the way: you know I'm probably not talking about some of the worst compositing you'll see in any beloved motion picture, some of which would not fly on a TV show... from the 1990s.  It's shocking some of it made the cut: the outright bizarre thing about some of these terrible images is that they don't really need to be there in the first place.  Often the cheaper alternatives would have been better, even if Marshall had a superhero blockbuster's resources to achieve the shots that were chosen instead.  Our last sighting of Juno, for example, is an atrocity that operates on exactly this level.

Instead, what I'm talking about when I talk about beauty are the kroovy practical effects and the great cave sets.  More to the point, I'm talking about a loveliness of color that may exceed Suspiria's, and recalls nothing less than a color-tinted silent film.  I'm talking about the use of enormous black spaces that wipe out great swathes of the 2.35:1 frame, with action routinely confined to a third of the screen.  The Descent looks like William Cameron Menzies rose from the dead to direct it, and it looks like someone convinced his reanimated corpse to shoot it in Scope.

Did we come at the same time?  That's never happened before.  It's love.

The technique serves the narrative without fail: the claustrophobic impression, enforced by the small sections of light cut from the darkness, remains endlessly effective; and the sequences monochromed by the red flare light and the sickly green of a phosphorescent lamp are disorienting; and the lake of blood is, beyond any doubt, appallingly grotesque.  But beyond the narrative, itself near-flawless, The Descent is also aesthetically compelling in a way almost no film ever manages to be.  The single best shot of the film is Aladdin by way of Thief of Bagdad, a jagged white staircase of bones, suspended in an endless oblivion.  The Descent, as a revivification of the best of 80s badass tropes, would have been worthy even without its beauty.  But with such spectacle on its side, it's not just great: it's one of our century's single most accomplished films.

Oh, and the endings are different depending on the version you watch.  Both are perfectly good, and wind up saying the same thing in different ways, without feeling as if they repeated themselves.  In one, Sarah is haunted forever; in the other, she is trapped forever.  I'm a little flummoxed by the notion that one betrays the film and the other doesn't, though the American jump scare ending does feel a touch cheaper.  The British ending is, allegedly, bleaker.  But in this "bleaker" ending, after all, Sarah stands on the edge of a precipice, and unlike the "happy" ending, she is just a step away from peace.

Score:  10/10


  1. I was planning on doing something completely different when I went online this evening, but of course I had to drop everything to check out your thoughts on The Descent.

    I'm very pleased with the decisions you have been making to fill the gaps in your horror knowledge and equally pleased that it led you to an appreciation of just how damn scary those black frames tend to be.

    I'm also mildly surprised yet delighted that you wound up loving all three of the films that you picked. You're a bona fide fan of cinema and I'm glad you've spent some quality time down in my neck of the woods.

    1. Now I need to watch [REC]. I know it's your favorite and I know I'm an awful human. Stop denying it!

    2. Maybe I'm just buttering you up so you'll get to [REC] sooner. Who knows.