Arts & Life, Movies

Horror since 2000: (Un)Natural spaces in The Descent

In my family we kick-off Halloween on September 1. Much to my wife’s chagrin, the end of summer coincides with a non-stop schedule of genre viewing that takes us through all manner of slasher films, torture porn, haunted houses, zombies, ghouls and monsters. For two whole months, we subsist on a cultural diet of almost exclusively horror.

At a certain point in genre fandom, individual movies start to matter less than the relationships between movies; it’s no longer about how “good” or “bad a movie is—since these are largely relative terms anyway—but more about watching everything that was ever produced within the genre and understanding it as a whole. This is no small undertaking.

For the casual movie-goer, it might seem like we’re in of age of shitty remakes and sub-par entries from a cynical studio system that wants to make a quick buck every October with one ludicrous sequel after another (I mean, aren’t there, like, eight Paranormal Activity movies at this point?).  But for those in the know—and there are those whose authority and in-the-know-ness far exceeds mine—horror is actually still a thriving, creative genre with a ton of fresh output.

To help get you set for Halloween without having to spend the season (yes, for some of us it’s a full season) watching the same movies you’ve been watching since you were 12, I’m pleased to bring you four great horror movies made since the millennium.

The Descent (2005)

This 2005 entry from British director Neil Marshall is a truly terrifying subterranean monster flick that mixes Deliverance with The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The film finds a group of female adrenaline junkies heading deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a spelunking trip to uncharted depths. Along the way they discover a group of humanoid, deformed inbred flesh-eating creatures. Needless to say, the creatures aren’t interested in playing nice, so the women find themselves both lost underground and fighting for their lives.

The interesting thing about this film is that the terror begins before the creatures enter the narrative. Marshall’s adept story-telling and direction create a claustrophobic, hostile environment that will have you squirming in your seat. As the women travel deeper and deeper into the cave, the passages get smaller and the camera frame gets tighter on each actor. Crawling through tight spaces there’s a growing dread that subtle shifts in the rocks could shift, pinning and crushing—or burying alive—the women at any moment. The claustrophobia in some scenes borders on unbearable, and there’s an increasing sense that the adventurers have entered a place they aren’t meant to inhabit and may not escape.

This part of the film plays on the common horror theme in which space (ie. the caves) becomes one of the primary sites of terror.

In horror there are traditionally two kinds of hostile spaces: foreign spaces (think the spaceships) and familiar spaces (think haunted houses or murderers chasing people through otherwise quiet suburban homes—more on this later in this series). One relies on the confusion of the unknown, while the other relies on adding a terrifying element to a place usually reserved for the most common, natural and banal activities.

In The Descent there’s an eerie sense of entering the unknown as soon as the women enter the dense, wooded Appalachian Mountains. At a whole other level, there’s also a play on the Appalachias that will be familiar to anyone whose ever seen Deliverance, in which a natural environment can become the site of horrific trauma and vicious foreign peoples. The women also spend an early scene in a cabin in the woods, which in most horror movies would bring on all kinds of violence. But here, nobody dies in either the cabin or during the late-night slumber party scene.

Marshall takes all of these genre conventions and inter-textual film elements to create something unique and different. By the time he introduces the drooling, blind, sonar-stalking monster, viewers have already been through the terrifying experience of space that leads to them.

Part of The Descent’s appeal is its depiction of strong, female characters. While, as expected, their numbers dwindle as the movie progresses, each of the women in the film kicks ass until their final moments on screen. From rock climbing to head-stomping, even though not all of them make it out, The Descent gives viewers a compelling group of female characters who are strong enough to enter these foreign spaces. And for some of them, they might also be strong enough to make it out.

It’s also one of the more interesting horror films made in the past ten years, so do yourself a favour and check it out.

Kiel Hume writes for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter: @kielculture

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