Friday, 16 September 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 89 - The Descent

#12 - The Descent

Look at that; Neil Marshall’s two best known films made it into my top 20. While Dog Soldiers was awesome and a great film in its own right, if you’re comparing these two then The Descent is the superior film. If I’m being deathly honest, Dog Soldiers is more of a fun B-film that everyone enjoys while The Descent veers more towards a serious piece that could actually win awards. I’m not sure if it did but it definitely should have. The two films make a good pair of companion pieces like The Others and The Innocents since they both follow a special format, like a majority cast of one gender with one of the opposite gender in the cast although in this the only man has less than two minutes of screen time. But let’s go in even deeper...

We have three relatively young outdoor enthusiasts Sarah, Beth and Juno who love doing things like white-water rafting and rock climbing. One of these days in particular Sarah is in a horrific traffic accident that kills her husband and her seven-year-old daughter. One year later Sarah is still recovering from her experience (now on anti-depressants) and she and Beth travel to America to visit Juno who has planned a caving trip to help Sarah out a little. Joining them are two of their Dutch friends Rebecca and Sam as well as Juno’s new student of sorts, the Irish tomboy Holly. The girls all happily head into the cave and things seem to be going fine...until there’s a cave-in and Juno drops a bombshell: this is a completely new cave system that hasn’t been recorded yet so nobody knows they’re down there. So it’s up to them to find their own way out, which they do feel quite confident about when they start to find evidence of other caving equipment down there...along with a whole lot of dead animal skeletons. Before they have time to wonder what the hell is going on with this cave system, they are attacked by an entire army of freaky humanoid cannibals (dubbed Crawlers by movie fans) and they immediately have to fight for their lives. 

I mentioned back in my entry for Dog Soldiers about how in horror/sci-fi films you have to wait about twenty minutes for the monsters to show up but it was pulled off successfully? Well Neil Marshall took it even further in this film. The Crawlers don’t actually appear until nearly an hour into the film and then technically they’re only in it for about half an hour. The rest of the time is spent on character development and establishing the slowly decaying trust in the group as well as all the claustrophobia of being trapped down in a cave. In fact many critics thought the film captured the feeling of being trapped in a cave so well that they were disappointed when the Crawlers showed up and interrupted all the caving drama. I can understand where they’re coming from as you really do watch two different stories, much like From Dusk Till Dawn where the first half is more of a drama about the girls getting trapped and trying to find a way out, and the second half is them trying to survive against the Crawlers. No offence to Tarantino but this film pulled it off in a great straight way instead of a so bad it’s good sort of way.

Another unique technique the filmmakers decided to throw in to actually get that sense of claustrophobia is to avoid the typical bluish filter and shadowed lens to represent darkness. Instead they use different types of filters with really strong saturated colours to emphasize the darkness. The reasoning behind this is the light coming from glow-sticks and flares so that a lot of the time we see the girls under either a strong red light or an eerie green glow which only adds to the striking visuals. 
There are also a good few shots done on Holly’s video camera with the infrared setting on and actually the first time we see a Crawler up close is on Holly’s camera. There are also a handful of other scenes where we get the light from Sarah’s torch and of course the torches in the caving helmets. This all goes together really well to give us that sense of claustrophobia and not knowing where the Crawlers could be. It’s also a handy way for the filmmakers to reuse sets without us spotting the differences.

Now in a unique way for a horror film we have an entirely all-female cast with the only man being Sarah’s husband who is killed off in the first couple of minutes and has only a pair of lines. I think that along with Thelma and Louise this helps make a feminist film more appealing by placing a group of women in a situation that you wouldn’t normally expect to see them in a film and watching how they handle it. If we were only to hear about The Descent’s basic plot – underground cave monsters attacking people – we would assume there would be a team of proper alpha males with one or two girls tagging along (pretty much like The Cave, also a pretty good caving film) – but having an all-female cast does put a new spin on it. 
I really like how the women all have different accents since I always enjoy whenever you get a mix of nationalities in there, especially having Dutch and Irish in there since those are some you don’t normally see in films like this (okay one of the Dutch girls was played by a Swedish actress but it’s still diverse). This does help us tell the girls apart and give them their own characterisations. All six actresses do a fantastic job and it’s impossible for me to talk about them individually because they all deliver some really strong performances. You will recognise Alex Reid (Sally from Misfits) and Nora-Jane Noone (Bernadette from The Magdalene Sisters) in the cast but that’s beside the point really. Oh and the guy who played Terry in Dog Soldiers also plays one of the Crawlers but you obviously won’t be able to recognise him. 

Normally at this point I would pick out some of my favourite scenes in the film but I honestly can’t pick just one that sticks out to me since there isn’t really a specific scene that I want to get to whenever I watch the film, just like I couldn’t really decide which clip to pick for the video. This is a film that has to be watched in its entirety and all the scenes complement each other though I will say the action scenes are well done as I always do and they are on par with the caving scenes so there isn’t a half of the movie that I prefer over the other. I like the first half with the drama of being trapped underground and I also like the second half with the girls fighting off the Crawlers. I know this is really missing the point but I still want to go caving now since it does look like fun – I mean there had to be a reason the girls in the film did it several times before they jumped into that cave. Oh well, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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