I’m going to talk about movies that came out years ago.
A spoiler warning would be superfluous.
I first saw The Descent in theaters sometime around it’s American release, which would mark my first viewing around 2006. I remember liking it then.
It’s a horror movie, and to that end you instantly know there are going to be some familiar tropes. Aesthetically pleasing characters (a group of them, in fact, imagine that), a secret held amongst the members of this seemingly tightly-nit group of friends, and of course the “hey lets get ourselves in a dangerous scenario” cliche.
Not long ago, I found myself treated to The Cabin in the Woods, an utterly trope-ridden film that seems to have set out to do that purposefully. Cabin in the Woods is a critique and deconstruction of horror films — forcing us to address what we like and what we don’t like about the genre.
Lately I’ve been increasingly respectful of Joss Whedon’s work.
To that end, the movie itself is cleverly written in that there’s almost nothing original about what you see in it. However the manner in which it is tied together is rather revolutionary; personally I like to think that it offers an explanation for why horror movies exist. The cliches, the tropes, the familiar themes – it’s all part of a cyclic ritual to please bloodthirsty gods.
One might go so far as to suggest that the “old gods” (a clear homage to H.P. Lovecraft) in the film are metaphors for the audience. We as viewers have arrived to witness a show, whether at a cinema or taking the effort to play the movie at home. We demand retribution for the crimes committed by the various characters, we demand mercy for the innocent, and most of all, we demand blood.
As the viewers, we decide whether a film exists (is playing) or not (turning it off, and the stories of the characters never play out and remain suspended in paused limbo forever). We also ensure the continued real-world Hollywood industry by repeatedly paying money to see these recycled movies at the box office.
I’ll tell you one thing I look for when watching a movie, particularly those in the horror genre.
Something that’s more than the same elements of a story rearranged with slightly different faces and a slightly different biome. Cabin in the Woods manages to not only bring forth everything that is familiar, because that’s mostly what horror flicks — particularly those from Hollywood — seem to have become.
I’m not sure how many times I could re-watch this movie (I’ve read other reviewers say they can and have quite a bit), but I can easily say I count it as extremely memorable for its clever subversion of tropes and critique of not only the producers of these kinds of movies, but the consumers as well. It is, as people in Dungeons & Dragons circles call it, meta and thoroughly self-aware, however it never once breaks the fourth wall.
Go see it.
Back to The Descent (2005). Now here’s a deceptively good movie, if Rotten Tomatoes has anything to say about it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s got familiar horror movie elements, but I would like to emphasize that it’s not a Hollywood production. The people behind this one came from across the Pond, and while filming was done in the U.K., the setting for the story takes place in South Carolina, USA.
Much like how The Cabin in the Woods utilizes familiar tropes, we see a group of close-knit friends (though all-female, which is an interesting production choice, as there’s an absence of the typical alpha male character) delving into a dangerous situation of their own volition.
They’re adventurers, in possession of what is suggested to be extensive caving experience. They’re a group of physically capable people, and for once they look the part. Unlike the rail-thin plastic dolls we see so oft-depicted on the silver screen like in Charlie’s Angels. Or most every movie containing an Action Girl.
Naturally, the characters discover more than they could have expected down there. Between claustrophobia, the way out being sealed by a cave-in (resulting of course in a “no way to go but forward” scenario), and injuries from plain old-fashioned accident, they encounter what really attracted me to this movie at first: the creatures.
Troglodytes, subterranean hominids that look and act like flightless bat-human hybrids. With a sickly pallor and blindness to boot, they rely on acute hearing and pointy teeth to get around down there, and the creatures themselves were conceptualized a little more thoroughly than your average monster. There’re hints of tribal organization, with females and motherly vindication being witnessed. These aren’t mole people, either.
But the creatures are not what have me thinking highly of this movie. In fact, they aren’t a hugely scary element, although you do find yourself fearing for the characters.
What makes this movie interesting is the change that occurs in the protagonist, and ties nicely with the double entendre of the title. Sure, the ladies go and descend into a deep dark cave, but the main character – Sarah – also undergoes something of a descent of her own.
You see, in the opening scenes, we witness the tragic loss of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident. The movie takes place a year later, after she’s been subject to psychotherapeutic treatment (evident in medications she’s seen taking during the one-year-later reunion with her adventurer friends). We also see that she’s prone to nightmares and, possibly, hallucinations, and as one of her friends points out, among the host of obstacles one might encounter in the Underdark are …well, hallucinations.
Naturally, the first time she sees one of the creatures her account is immediately dismissed by her peers and the expected “I told you so,” moment occurs later. But Sarah’s descent into madness is intriguing because it allows her to survive the coming obstacles.
A normal person might scream their head off after tumbling into a pool of flesh slurry. A normal person might be too overcome with guilt to mercy-kill her wounded, immobile friend before getting eaten alive by man bats. A normal person might freeze in panic at the sight of her friends being picked off one at a time.
But Sarah isn’t normal; to put it in less gentle terms, her mind snapped like a dry and brittle twig sometime between the trauma of her husband’s family and the bloody deaths of her friends. She thus underwent a sort of metamorphosis, into a human animal, arguably as savage as the troglodytes around her, and it is this metamorphosis that allows her to survive.
Add in the drama of a certain betrayal that I’d rather not spell out here (because if you still haven’t seen the movie, what I’ve talked about in this review actually doesn’t spoil all that much), and you’ve got a story that really stands out in the horror genre.
One of the better, modern horror flicks I’ve seen in awhile, and I’ve always felt it deserved more love.
Oh and there’s a sequel. You needn’t concern yourself with it.