Category: Creature Features


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Long-time readers may remember that I have complicated feelings towards the horror genre. And by complicated feelings, I think that most of the output of the genre is unequivocal garbage. More than any other genre (except for like pornography), cheap, easily disposable horror is the mainstay of the genre and people think they can substitute cheap gore effects and tired cliches for strong writing and a genuine sense of terror. But, when good horror films come along (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, or Paranormal Activity), they are incredibly powerful experiences. And, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade is the British creature feature, The Descent. Though I found the sequel to be incredibly disappointing (mostly for abandoning the atmosphere and tension that made the original so brilliant), there have been few horror films of the modern era as terrifying as 2005’s The Descent.

So much horror today (and ever since the 80s resurgence of the genre) is predicated on massive amounts of blood and gore. This may seem like a weird thing to complain about (considering that The Descent is quite gory), but without characterization and atmosphere, modern audiences have become completely desensitized to gore. Most horror films (think the torture porn subniche films like Hostel or Saw) exist not to scare audiences but to satisfy their bloodlust. They go into the films hoping to see new and inventive ways for people to be killed and dismembered. And that’s not scary. It’s just gross. Horror films have always been most effective when the director and writer are able to create an empathetic relationship between the films’ doomed heroes and the audience. And that dedication to establishing sympathetic heroines is one of many reasons that The Descent is a modern horror masterpiece.

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One year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident, British adventure junkie Sarah (Shauan MacDonald) travels to America to go caving with her five best friends, including the adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) that may or may not have been sleeping with her late husband. But the girls’ trip into a North Carolina cave system turns out to be a bigger adventure than they bargained for when Juno leads them into an unexplored cave system to up the group’s thrills. And if traveling through a cave prone to cave-ins and with no idea where the exits are wasn’t a big enough problem, it becomes readily apparent that these six action girls aren’t alone in the cave as they are slowly picked off one by one by a race of subterranean humanoids with a taste for human flesh.

What makes this film work where the sequel (or any other writer/director trying to handle similar thematic material) fails is how much this movie makes you wait for the bloody payoff. In fact, I almost think the arrival of the “Crawlers” is less scary than the cave exploration before hand. You don’t get your first  real sight of the creatures until more than forty minutes into the film. Before the caves are even reached, a good fifteen to twenty minutes is spent establishing the relationships and tensions of this group of friends so that you actually care about everyone and you know who everyone is besides Red Shirts A, B, and C. And that sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that the film establishes as the girls make their way through the cave before the creatures show up is simply suffocating in the best sense of the word.

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And, The Descent is a film built entirely on the perfect call-and-response of tension and release. You would think that a film as reliant on jump scares (and fake jump scares at the beginning) would not fare well upon repeat viewings. That is… not the case. In fact, because of the excellent costume and make-up work of the “Crawlers,” the tension of waiting for them to make their inevitable, terrifying appearance becomes even more unbearable on later viewings. Particularly, the now classic scene when they first make their appearance known to the group while Sarah uses a video recorder’s night-vision mode. And when the violence arrives, it is so brutal and against characters that we actually give a shit about, that it carries more visceral impact than a year’s worth of horror movie deaths combined.

Also, The Descent is a massive fuck-you to the misogynistic and male-dominated world of horror. Women tend to be the primary cannon fodder of most horror films (and yes, most of the main characters of The Descent die), but in The Descent, the bad-ass female heroines avoid every negative female horror stereotype that they can. And when they make mistakes that lead to their deaths, they are generally believable and realistic human error. For example, Juno’s decision to explore an un-marked cave system totally fits with her character’s adrenaline-fueled need to prove herself and a different character, the possibly lesbian Holly, had complained about the “tourist” cave they were supposed to be exploring. One of my biggest complaints about horror films is that characters don’t act in rational ways, and The Descent totally avoids that trap.

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I’ll draw this review to a close mostly because I need to start getting ready for class (I woke up at 4 AM this morning; I have a meeting with my adviser at 8:30 AM; and I work tonight until 1 AM. Oy vey), but if you couldn’t tell, I could rave about how much I love this movie for another 500 words or so. I’ve seen it a little over half a dozen times now, and each time I notice a new bit of foreshadowing or I think I notice a creature in the edges of some shot before they’re supposed to actually show up. That’s the sign of a great film. Great movies offer you something new each time you see them, and The Descent clears that bar. I rarely find a film to be legitimately scary. Even the horror movies that I tend to love don’t scare me very often (I more often appreciate their technique and atmosphere), but The Descent is an honest-to-god scary movie, and those are so rare that you can’t pass them up when you find one.

Final Score: A

 

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Alien1

I’m going to posit a fairly unpopular opinion right now, but it’s one that I’ve held for a long time now (and my most current viewing of the film didn’t dispossess me of this belief), the original 1979 Alien is one of the more over-rated science fiction films of all time. It is generally held up as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, and if that’s true, sci-fi horror must be a sadly dull genre of cinema. Even now, 34 years later, it’s clear that Alien was a crowning technical achievement. And much like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down, it should be obvious to everyone that Ridley Scott is a masterful director with a keen visual eye. Sadly, the pacing in Alien is downright tedious at times and the film never frightened me once. Through in the fact that, outside of Ripley and the character played by Yaphet Kotto, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film, Alien is a sadly stale if exceptionally technically well made sci-fi horror.

Alien is considered to be one of the premier films of the “less is more” philosophy of horror film-making. And I am a huge supporter of that genre. The original Paranormal Activity crafted a genuine modern horror classic on that principle, and Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion is also from the same vein. But those films succeed where Alien often fails with an understanding of how to fill the scenes in between the horror. Paranormal Activity had the great banter between Micah and Katie and Repulsion had its omnipresent social commentary on the dangers of sexual repression. Alien has its plot and practically nothing else besides its admittedly suffocating atmosphere. If Alien had found a way to breathe life to the characters portrayed by its star-studded cast, it might have been a great film. As it is, Alien simply is not.

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In the future, the commercial towing ship Nostromo holds 7 passengers (plus a cat) as it returns to Earth after a successful mining operation. However, before the ship can reach Earth, the crew is prematurely awakened from its cryogenic stasis when they intercept an emergency distress beacon on a remote planet. An away team consisting of the ship’s two commanding officers, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt), as well as the navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), heads down to the planet’s surface to investigate the distress beacon where they find a crashed, derelict space craft with nothing left alive on board. Or so they think. Kane finds an egg in one of the ship’s chambers and a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to his face, even breaking through his helmet, creating a parasitic attachment to Kane’s head. When the chief science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks quarantine rules and let’s the away team back on the ship, the whole crew’s lives is put in danger.

It is quickly apparent once the away team returns that the alien attached to Kane’s face is very dangerous. Warrant officer Ripley (The Village‘s Sigourney Weaver) is angry enough that they let the alien on the ship in the first place, and the engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) aren’t too pleased about it either. No one knows what the alien is or why it’s attached itself to Kane’s face, but there’s a ray of hope when the alien seemingly disappears. Kane seems to be alright until an infamous dinner sequence where an evolved version of the alien bursts forth from his chest. And from that point forward, it’s a race against time to either kill the alien or be killed as it evolves and starts to take more and more of the ship’s crew down with it.

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I’ll give Alien credit for the things it does astoundingly well. As I’ve said, this movie is 34 years old now. Other than a hilariously 1970s/1980s idea of what computers will look like in the future (apparently they all still run on DOS), the special effects and general feel of Alien has aged remarkably well. There were only a couple occasions where I thought the effects looked laughably aged (an explosion at the very end of the film being the most prominent one), and like the original Star Wars films, Alien is a film you could show to today’s kids and they wouldn’t laugh at its look. And, beyond the effects, Ridley Scott makes the atmosphere and look of the ship absolutely suffocating and dripping with dread (even if nothing especially scary ever happens). The lighting and camerawork of the movie are superb, and I just wish it’d had a better script supporting it.

The film is also chock full of some of the best character actors of the 1970s and is the film that shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom. And the performances are great. While the characterizations of the people aboard the ship are paper-thin, the actors have a strong chemistry, and the animosity between Ash and Ripley is so strong that one almost wonders if they disliked each other in real life. They legitimately gave the impression that they simply couldn’t stand to be around one another. Sigourney Weaver helped to encapsulate one of the ultimate female bad-asses in movie history, and her turn as Ripley is one of the great parts of the film, although I loved the consistently scheming and disapponted Parker played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker and Ripley were the only two characters in the film that seemed to have any bite to them.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I hope you can tell that I don’t dislike Alien. It is an inarguably well-crafted film, and it helped bring Ridley Scott’s talents to mainstream prominence. Unfortunately, it’s script is simply alright, and it doesn’t do justice to Scott’s artistic vision and talent. Black Rain is one of the least remembered/discussed of Ridley Scott’s films, but I honestly think it’s better than Alien. It is smart and stylish from beginning to end, and though it’s not some shining example of cinematic art, it always remains fun. Alien wants to be cinematic art, but it isn’t good enough to pull it off. I think everyone should watch Alien. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s required sci-fi horror viewing 101; I just don’t think it’s the timeless classic that everyone else does.

Final Score: B

From some of my other horror reviews on this blog, it should be fairly apparent that I’m a big fan of 2005’s The Descent. A British film directed by Neil Marshall, The Descent turned so many of the different conventions of horror on its head while still maintaining the true scares that make great horror films good. With a virtually all-female cast who refused to bow to the dumb-blonde horror lead cliche and scares that were derived as much from claustrophobia and that all too human fear of the dark as from the monsters terrorizing the heroines, The Descent was a fresh break from the growing presence of torture porn and tireless sequels. Along with the first Paranormal Activity, 28 Days Later, and Let the Right One In, it remains one of my favorite horror films of the 2000’s. So, when I heard they were making a sequel, I was simultaneously concerned and excited. I was excited because I loved the original film so much but I was concerned because horror sequels are terrible 99% of the time. As it turned out, The Descent: Part 2 fails to live up to the admittedly high standards of the original film, and while compared to the rest of the horror market it is still remarkably scary, in the shadow of the original film, it fails to impress and instead leaves me terribly disappointed.

Apparently, the version of the original The Descent that I saw had an alternate ending because mine ended with Sarah (the film’s sole surviving heroine) waking up from a fantasy where she escaped the caves to still be there trapped with the monsters (though there was a subtle implication that she had killed everyone and the monsters weren’t real). This film begins with Sarah as the sole survivor of her group’s disastrous spelunking expedition while the local police are involved in a manhunt for the missing girls. When the local Sheriff discovers that Sarah has escaped, he forces a nearly catatonic Sarah (as well as his deputy and a crew of trained spelunkers) to go back into the caves to try and find the lost girls (since Sarah is too broken to say what really happened). It isn’t long before the subterranean humanoids are back as they start to pick off the crew one-by-one, and Sarah is forced to recognize what really happened if she wants any chance of living.

One of the things that made the original film so great was that rather than relying on stock horror archetypes and cheap characterization, the film devoted a healthy amount of time before the scares arrived to really fleshing those women out. By the time they entered the monsters’ feeding area, you felt like you really knew these girls and thus it was more painful to see them torn apart by cave people. This film does not spend the same amount of time on character, and thus, there is no real human connection with the main characters’ suffering and the film suffers for it. Similarly, the caves themselves were as essential to the horror experience in the first film as the monsters and it isn’t utilized as well this time around. Much more focus is given to bloody deaths and more visible monsters, and that takes away much of the disturbing unknown elements of the original film. The most positive thing I can say for this movie is that it is still quite scary (because those monsters are inexplicably creepy) and there’s a twist about half-way through that I can’t imagine anyone saw coming.

For people who thought the first film was too talky and slow and deliberately paced (i.e. all of the things I loved about the first film), then you’ll probably love this entry because once the action starts (which is fairly early in the film compared to the first), it never lets up and it is far more gruesome this time around. Unfortunately, the original set a much different kind of standard for horror storytelling for me, and I am unwilling to settle with the more unambitious fare on display in this sequel. Perhaps, my high level of dissatisfaction with this film is directly related to how high I regard the original film, but this just re-affirm all of my suspicions that entertaining and original horror films are universally denigrated when the studios try and cash in on cheap and easy sequels (Saw, Scream, Paranormal Activity, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.). By no means is this film awful, but we all know that they could have done better.

Final Score: B-