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April 30, 2007

The Descent of Horror

The_descent According to USA Today, "no fewer than 39 fright films have been scheduled for the big screen" in 2007. For the previous three years, "the average was 20."

Studios like horror films because "in most cases, a fright flick costs less than $30 million and easily makes that back in theater and home video revenue." The problem is that what USA Today calls the "glut" of horror films threaten to -- puns definitely intended -- cannibalize each other by eating into each other's audience. The result is disappointing box-office numbers.

It might help if some of the movies were actually, you know, scary. This past weekend, I watched The Descent, which was written and directed by Neil Marshall. Why? At the risk of seeming completely shallow, here goes: the cover, which featured this picture, had long intrigued me, albeit in a bad way. More importantly, it was one of the few blu-ray discs available for rent at my Blockbuster. A good scare in high definition picture and sound, deal me in. Add the superlatives thrown around at IMDb and I figured it was worth a rent.

The Descent is about six women from the British Isles who go caving somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. (The license plates on the rental cars read "North Carolina.") As you can guess, something goes terribly wrong.

Wrong but not particularly scary. The Descent is a textbook example of what Roger Ebert calls "movies that go 'Boo!'" They don't frighten you so much as startle you. You don't feel a sense of menace while watching movies like "The Descent" -- you feel nervous. Eventually, even someone who is as easily startled as I am gets over the nervous feeling as we can predict with 97.3572 percent accuracy when something is going to pop out of the background. (Propeller-head A/V geek aside: one of the advantages of high definition, especially on a properly set up monitor, is that objects in dark areas become more distinct than they usually are in your local multiplex. IOW, I could see the "crawlies" coming.)

The other thing modern horror does in lieu of frightening us is to try and gross us out. The lead comment at The Descent's IMDb page called it a "magnificent gore fest." "Stupid," "obviously fake," and "desperately over-the-top" is more like it. A recent autopsy on CSI:NY was far more disturbing than anything in The Descent. Special effects are no substitute for genuine horror.

What's especially regrettable about The Descent is that it had the potential to tell a good, maybe even great, horror story. The movie all but tells us that one of the six women had an affair with the lead character's husband and that, in a very real way, what happened in the caves was the result of sin, specifically, sexual transgression.

And that's the stuff of great horror. Before he, to put it politely, went off the deep end, E. Michael Jones wrote Monsters From The Id, a "biography" of modern horror. (In a sure sign of my approaching senility, I was surprised that the review quoted at Amazon was written by . . . me. It was one that I forgot I wrote for Beliefnet.) According to Jones, the monsters we encounter in horror are produced by our rejection of Christian morality, and our embrace of the Enlightenment's ethos of personal liberation, especially in sexual matters.

Instead of choosing between embracing the new morality and setting aside our misgivings and remorse or embracing the Christian moral tradition, horror enabled us to express our guilt and regret symbolically and unconsciously. The monster, whether it's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or the "crawlies"  in the caves become a kind of Nemesis for an unbelieving age.

Unfortunately, the idea didn't seem to occur to anyone associated with the film. Instead, a character's "ego" was blamed for their predicament. (Please!) I re-watched crucial scenes while listening to the commentary track, hoping for a glimmer of recognition as in "you slept with my husband and now we're all gonna die because of you!" Nada. Zip. Bupkes. Instead, we get a nihilistic whimper.

Too bad. The best horror is the stuff that proceeds from our fears and anxieties, especially the sense that, perhaps, we have it coming. No amount of special effects and loud noises can match that.

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Doug Kimball

Interesting/insightful take on this, Roberto. For a different view by a Christian film critic, check out this link: http://lookingcloser.org/movie%20reviews/A-G/guest-descent-wright.htm

wow i beg to differ, this was one of the better horror movies i've seen due the the masterful suspense and plot buildup. can u recommend anything similar?

Jason Taylor

One thing that they could do is stop thinking to much of their special effects prowess. The most frightening thing is something you can't see and can't understand, not something you can.
For instance those scary old Balkan legends seem to come simply from looking at the forest at night and wondering, "what in the world is there." Scientists would say it is a leftover from the days when man wasn't the top predator. And sometimes that is literally true and a quite rational fear, which is why I almost never travel around town at night if I can help it. But whatever the reason, we fear most what we can't understand.
For instance, in the LOTR movie, one of the biggest mistakes was to actually show Sauron in the begining. Sauron can never be seen.
It is funny how few producers understand this simple fact. That many of us are still slightly afraid of the dark.


No way! The Descent is one of the most well made horrors around. I have watched so many horrors, Hollywood, Asian, old and new. The Descent is completely different from any other horror films made. Its horror comes from a few angles; physical (claustrophobia), morally (betrayal and others..watch it to know what i mean), fear of the unknown, fear of never being found and the last part is really the BOMB. For those who have not seen it, I don't wanna burst the bubble, so GO WATCH IT.

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