Monday, January 29, 2007

Cinema 2006: Descending Into Darkness

Neil Marhshall's horror masterpiece The Descent is an homage to the narrative style of classic horror films from the 70's and 80's. For viewers who think that horror cinema has something to offer beyond blood and guts, seeing this film is a nostalgic experience. Marshall's stylistic influences are many, from George A. Romero to James Cameron, but what makes this film so significant to the horror cannon is that it doesn't treat its characters as card board cutouts meant for devouring. Focusing on woman named Sarah as she struggles to deal with a monumental tragedy, the plot involves her and several friends spelunking through caves underneath the Appalacian mountains. What happens within the caves reflects the fear, rage, and guilt felt by Sarah, representing a physical and mental descent into darkness. But Marshall refuses to make the mistakes M. Night Shyamalan's committed with Signs, in making the actual plot too heavy on symbolism and lacking in any real feeling in the process. Marshall's images are capable of representing or symbolizing many things (For more on this, check out Jim Emerson's excellent imagery analysis of The Descent), but he cares very much for the characters and doesn't let the imagery overtake the immediate emotions of the story.

This film brilliantly guides the spectator on descent into physical and mental darkness, and there is surprising ambiguity as to the "meaning" of the plot beyond its thriller core. Marshall instead makes the film a journey just as much for the spectator, building moods and and relationships between characters, luring the spectator in before unleashing an experience so physically and mentally frightening that the darkness and brutality of the last act seems to take on a resonance of its own. But it works because of Marshall's careful construction of the film's characters, moods, images, and themes, which together culminate in an inescapable nightmare of dread and darkness.

The Descent borrows its scare tactics and storytelling techniquies liberally from the horror classics of the past, but Marshall gives them freshness because he has a story to tell and isn't interested in replicating those influences. He lively incorporates them into a carefully constructed narrative framework that is rarely seen in the horror genre these days. To me, this film is Marshall's cinematic argument to remind viewers that horror not only can still be scary good fun, but that it is capable of much more as storytelling. Plunging the spectator into the primal depths of the mind and soul, The Descent is one of the finest pieces of horror cinema in years.

Note: I have seen both the American theatrical cut and the original British cut and recommend the latter, which is available in a director's cut DVD format. The only difference in the two cuts is in how the film ends, with the American release bowing to a more generic shock ending and the British cut offering thematic closure and ambiguity while remaining consistent with the narrative threads and style. Despite exemplifying much of what is currently wrong with horror cinema, the American theatrical cut makes for interesting contrast, consideration, and discussion about the conventions of the genre in relation to the original cut. From that perspective, I recommend seeing both. But if you're choosing between the two, make sure it's the director's cut.

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