72: The Descent (2005)

I plowed through lots of good movies this weekend, so I figured that was as good a reason as any to revive this here blog.

So I should mention up front that horror is probably the genre I know the least about.  As a kid I was prone to night terrors, so me + anything remotely scary was a bad idea.  So that means I’m getting to watch lots of horror classics for the first time as a grownup, which is actually pretty exciting (more of those to come).  The Descent is probably too recent to be considered a classic, but I have no doubt it’ll become one in a few years.  The story is nice and simple: six women go spelunking together in backwoods North Carolina, partly to help one of them heal from the deaths of her husband and daughter one year before.  It’s supposed to be an easy, “tourist trap” cave, but when the entrance caves in and leaves them trapped inside, one of the women admits she led them to an uncharted, unnamed cave instead, so they could discover it together.  Before long the psychological pressure of being trapped so far underground starts getting to the women, and they begin seeing and hearing some very weird things.

I know I talk a lot about cliches and the avoidance thereof, but I have to at least mention the easy horror stereotypes this movie skirts.  Casting the movie with all women was a bold choice in itself, but I was even more impressed with the classy way the women were characterized.  Everyone knows female characters suffer from the virgin-or-whore complex in horror films so I won’t rehash that rant; suffice it to say, you could replace all six women with men without changing more than five lines of dialogue.   I also loved that this didn’t fall squarely into any one horror category — it’s not really a creature movie even though (SPOILER ALERT!) there are some scary creatures; it’s not strictly man vs. possibly malevolent nature, even though nature is the main obstacle to the women’s survival; and while the real horror is psychological, we never get into M. Night Shyamamalalalan “it was all a dream/hallucination/multiple personality” territory either.  Interestingly, it ends up being a bit of a morality tale, which isn’t all that unusual for this genre but I think it’s handled more elegantly here than what we usually see.  Some not-very-subtle hints are dropped in the first few minutes that Juno has done something very bad to Sarah (the soon-to-be widow), and it’s the same irresponsibility that leads to them getting trapped in the cave.  As the two characters we’re supposed to be interested in, Juno and Sarah start out the movie as polar opposites  — poor virtuous widowed Sarah and careless daredevil Juno — but when the shit starts to hit the fan, they both go completely medieval on the creepy-crawlies lurking in the shadows while everyone else cowers off to the side.  The stress of the situation makes them more alike than different, and therefore just as dangerous to each other as the cave itself and all the horrors within.  Just don’t watch it alone like I did!


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