27 June 2010
While it was kind of scary and interesting and totally worth watching, The Descent is in a way a checklist of all the things I want to avoid. Because of rushed characterizations (and pointless tragedies to make us sympathize with the protagonist), it feels populated with over-acting and over-reacting archetypes rather than dimensional, nuanced people. For the majority of the film I knew them as The Guidebook Pro, The Dykey Maverick, The Asian With Bad Judgment (And Worse Luck), That Blonde Whose Whole Family Died From Copper Tubing A Year Before The Story Even Got Going, and That Other Blonde Who Looks Like The Blonde Whose Family Died (Or Maybe That's The Pro And I'm Confused?). The only one I think I was supposed to care about (we'll call her Copper Tubing Blonde, even though I know by the end that her name is Sarah) makes the bold and questionable choice to maim her last-friend-standing (Juno, a.k.a. Bad Judgment Asian) and leave her to die based on misinformation and an honest mistake, and we are supposed to infer that prior to the death of Copper Tubing's husband and daughter, Bad Judgment was screwing around with said husband? I mean, maybe, but it never happened in the story, and the husband was dead before minute seven (I looked) and so, I'm sorry but... who cares who he was screwing? This is a story about Some Girls and a Cave.
Moving on: the first attack by the monsters (who I think of as the Gollum Family, although here they speak fluent Velociraptor) is quick and lethal -- out of nowhere a single bite to the neck and the first woman is dead. Every subsequent attack, the monsters seem less and less efficient at hunting or killing, often doing that villain-thing of pausing a hair's-breadth short of the killing blow just in case another good guy might run in from off-frame and stab them or something. So the threat that was promised by the first attack then got messier and sloppier. For example, they can't see but they've evolved so they can hear their own Velociraptorian squeals bounce off surfaces like sonar... but they can't hear the panicked breathing or rabid heartbeat (or hell, those gore-tex jackets vizzing against each other) as two girls crouch eight inches away and pretend they're invisible? Really? In short, when it comes to the Gollum Family logic doesn't enter into it, and I do think the movie would have been stronger -- and scarier -- if it had, if you could have really, just maybe, believed in these creatures and their menace. (A big example I mentioned to my roommate: the weirdo bird-dinosaur sounds are incongruous with their human bodies, which is okay I guess... but wouldn't it have been way scarier and freakier if they'd made low, gutteral human noises, just braying and barking and shrieking but in clearly human tones? I think that would have been ten times more terrifying than the traditional [and sorry to harp on this] Jurassic Park sound design of coos, caws, and high-pitched wailings.)
Third and lastly, though I'm sure I could go on: it would be generous to say that nine out of every ten scares in the movie come from something offscreen leaping onscreen, or a still object leaping to life, or some other "jump out atcha" moment, always accompanied by that old-hat piercing orchestra thing. This, as I've said before, is the horror-film equivalent of the old carnival ride where you sit in the car and get dragged through the "haunted house" but the only thing to "scare you" is the skeleton on wires that drops on you. Making me jump is, yes, an adrenaline thing that triggers my fight-or-flight response -- it can be said that that "scared" me. But it can not be called "scary," you know? I want a creeping, foreboding, real fear to enter me, not the cheap-thrill rollercoaster ride BOO! Waiting for that is always a better moment, so sucker-punches are the opposite of frightening, for my money.
To be fair, I know the film just wants to be a fun horror film, and it is, and it's scarier than most, and it's well done (and gorgeously shot), but it is full of the kinds of things I don't want my horror film to be. I think it just aims for a different target than what I'm aiming for within the broad notions of "horror" and "scary."