Monday, July 16, 2007

The Descent (2005)

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The initial fascination with underground rocks and dangers starts wearing off when at its thirty-minute mark, the only thing that's happened is a cave-in and a close encounter with an endless pit. Brit-director Neil Marshall makes most of his setting. His film is barely lit and succumbs to the horror film-temptation of using jarring movements to elicit a sense of confused dread. It doesn't work as the mixture of dim lighting and woozy camera movements causes visual nausea and incomprehension.

Standard items of horror chick-stupidity are in blatant display. The all-female cave exploring team includes an immature punk chick whose disregard for underground safety would cause her fatal harm. The rest seem indistinguishable from each other, especially since they are all covered with rockclimbing gear and the like; you often wonder why Marshall had to divulge useless information and trivia about the characters in its initial stages (including a life-altering trauma that supposedly fuels the main character to action, but really doesn't). It's quite obvious that these women are all cannon fodder to his pale and hungry cave-dwelling cretin.

The Descent can be read as a feminist text; the only problem there is that Marshall's portrayal of women are so facile, so superficial that despite not having a single male character in the film (if you count out the husband and several of the male monsters), it still feels overtly patriarchal. There's a sense that all these female rock climbers were given male brains. All their motivations are distinctly macho: to discover a cave and have it named for themselves --- even that act of entering the cave and witnessing for the first time its beauty is a metaphorical de-flowering.

Marshall completes the image of devirginization. He makes the invasion inherently painful and bloody; complete with a gooey pool of red blood, upon which the main character (Shauna Macdonald) reappears from completely changed into a Lara Croft-type cave raider (it's that proverbial rite of passage). Armed with determination charged by knowledge of her husband's infidelity and a will to live, she storms against the cave-dwelling, carnivorous apes to wreak violence and vengeance in an action-hero swagger. All sense of her femininity is thrown out in exchange for that vengeful, and very male-oriented dominance, that inherent need to rise above as superior.

That moment when they are stuck in the cave and the group's leader (Natalie Mendoza) reveals that the cave system is a new one and assumes responsibility, the film starts oozing extreme levels of testosterone with each of the more dominant females struggling for that top position; and when even pushed further by the threat of death, survival starts coinciding with those internal politics, jealousies and other emotions. The Descent is not a horror film that is distinctly female in its sensibilities. It is that illusion of novelty that Marshall delivers to you but truth be told, The Descent is just any other horror film out there --- there's probably a bit of sexual politics simmering underneath its faux-estrogen filled characters, but it's still quite bluntly a vastly underlit gore-fest.

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