They’re really a bit much, those ads you’ve probably seen on TV for the new British horror flick The Descent. You know the ones: the announcer with the impossibly deep voice going on about how “people” are “concerned” that the gore and the blood and the entrails and the brains and the clops of gloopy flesh and general messy human slaughter is far too intense for grannies and pregnant women and cardiac patients and fluffy kittens. And — you may be shocked to hear this — that’s not really true. I mean, sure, there’s plenty of blood and gore and so on, but actually probably a bit less than other recent flicks — like Saw II and Hostel — from Lionsgate Films, which is working so hard to reposition itself as the Ultimate Destination for Cinematic Horror or whatever.
Which isn’t to say that The Descent isn’t so scary that you may well pee yourself. It is. At the press screening I attended — which was like 25 guys and me, the lone girl able to withstand Ultimate Cinematic Horror, apparently — grown men, mature film critics, guys who’ve seen it all at the movies, were whimpering like traumatized puppies. No joke. What’s scary is the neverending anticipation that awful things are waiting around every bend (they usually are), and the dreadful claustrophobia that boxes you in even if you’re not afraid of enclosed spaces outside the multiplex, and the relentless darkness that keeps you from seeing what’s coming at you… and the bits we see in infrared through a character’s digital videocamera may be even worse, cuz your imagination finds all sorts of nightmares to the ghostly green shadows. Some hyperbolic moviewatchers have called this the scariest movie since [insert your own personal scariest movie here], and it’s even probably true for most of us who appreciate movies that are actually scary — that make you jump, that make you wanna pull your legs up onto the seat lest something hideous reach out from underneath and grab your ankles — as opposed to merely gory. Alien is the title that springs to mind for lots of folks who were kids in the 70s and 80s — including me — as the Ultimate Cinematic Horror, and the comparison is apt here, because The Descent works in the same way that Alien does: it holds back, it teases, it hides more than it shows. It seduces you, lures you in, and then, when you’re too deep in to get out, it attacks.
I wonder, too, for all those men all on their own (except for little ol’ me) at that screening, whether there wasn’t another aspect working to lend an extra dollop of uncommon terror. Cuz here’s the thing: The six climbers who have headed off for a pleasant day of spelunking in the Appalachians only to see it all go terribly wrong when a collapse cuts off their only known exit and they must venture deep into the unknown with little more than a hope of escape? They’re all women. Now, there are no shrinking violets here, of course, no damsels in distress — these are tough broads, experienced climbers, and they’re a thoroughly diverse bunch, too; there’s none of that typical horror movie crap with the estrogen brigade limited to one girl, or, in a broader-minded movie, two: the good girl and the slut. These women are individuals, are people. (The cast here consists of actors unknown in the U.S.) And yet, not to be sexist or anything, is there, for the typically male horror-movie audience, something even more terrifying than usual to see a band of attractive women in danger, even if they are all strong and confident and in no need at all of a man to rescue them?
Perhaps astonishingly, in light of this possibility, The Descent avoids one major cliché of the female-in-jeopardy horror trope: there’s none of the undertone of rape that frequently hovers in the subtext when women are placed in the path of bodily harm in movies like this. It may sound bizarre to say that a film about women under threat of vicious, violent death is a triumph of feminism, but there we are — there’s a refreshing novelty here, an unwillingness to give in to what is expected Or perhaps that’s not so astonishing: writer/director Neil Marshall’s last scary flick was the all-guy Dog Soldiers, which was intensely ooky while never descending into the conventions of its subgenre, the werewolf movie.
It’s easy to believe that conventions and clichés are the most inescapable thing when it comes to a well-trod genre like the oh-my-god-we’re-trapped-how-do-we-escape movie. But the best way to illustrate the smashing success of The Descent may not be to compare it to a classic like Alien — though this movie surely will earn a spot in the pantheon next to it — but to last summer’s very similar, if desperately unscary, The Cave. Ideas, such a side-by-side assessment will demonstrate, may be overpriced at a dime a dozen, but execution is everything. You may find yourself scoffing that you’ve seen this all before… till you’re whimpering, too.