A truly scary movie is a pearl beyond price. That’s because there’s so few of them. I, myself, have only been truly frightened at the movies three times: with Psycho, Jaws, and Alien. Oh, I’ve jumped now and then, when the pet cat leaps out of the darkness, the sign of a true asshole director. Repulsion and The Exorcist came close to making the list. Rosemary’s Baby and Open Water had a few moments. Maybe Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.
My standards are very, very high. Nightmare on Elm Street is not scary. I repeat: there is nothing scary about Freddie; Freddie is a yawn. Halloween is boring. Slasher films, gorefests, dead teenager movies … I can go soundly to sleep. The entire genre of “horror” is the most stultifying, least original, most by-the-numbers there is. I long ago gave up even looking at even a few of them. Saw? Fuck Saw, I didn’t bother. Fuck Saw II twice, fuck Saw III thrice, and when Saw IV gets here, fuck it, too.
So when I noticed the almost universally good reviews for this one, I decided to give it a chance. And I’m sorry to report that it is two films, cut almost exactly down the middle: A fine, claustrophobic, truly tense thriller; and a stupid blood-squirter, beginning at about minute 45 of this 99 minute story.
We’ve had a fair number of good mountain-climbing films. Acrophobia is one of the most common fears. Lee can’t watch films that have characters dangling over the edge of a cliff. Probably the next most common fear is claustrophobia, so why haven’t we have more movies about caving? Offhand, I can’t recall any. I’ve never done any spelunking myself, but I’ve read about it, and the first half of this movie captures the insanity of wiggling along a tiny passage through solid rock as well as anything I’ve ever seen. (Lee had to leave when they went underground.) Caves have big rooms, with flattish floors, sure, but much of the underground world is a crazy jigsaw with ups and downs and sideways, and huge jumbles of fallen rock, and it’s just not a very inviting place for human beings. You bring a lot of equipment, and you’d better bring a lot of nerve, too, and physical strength is a necessity. The Descent shows the real caving experience very well …
… until minute 46 or so. Then the spooks arrive, in the form of blind, mutant, subterranean Gollums who exist solely to kill and eat our six intrepid heroines (who really had been smart and intrepid up to that point), as they could not possibly have fed themselves for the thousands of years it would have taken them to evolve like that. It’s as if Jason in his hockey mask showed up halfway through Jaws and started killing people on the beach. Suddenly the cave looks like rubber and papier-mâché, and there’s plenty of room for the actresses to run foolishly around and bump into monsters. Plot logic flies out the window, and we’re left with a dead twenty-something movie where the only question is who gets her throat ripped out next. It wasn’t a question I was at all interested in by then.