August 10, 2006

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The Descent (R)
Hiker girls seriously kick some mutant butt in The Descent, a bloody, violent bit of punk horror serving up gruesome retribution for all the girly-girls-get-slaughtered-by-psychos movies.

Dude, yah!

Which isn’t to say this movie wouldn’t have been any good had the central characters been a group of high-fivin’ frat boys. I certainly would have been equally excited watching their more obnoxious members get gutted. But there’s a certain vicarious thrill in watching a group of take-no-crap chicks fight off cave-dwelling cannibals.

The movie begins with three British-Isle girls finishing up their adventure weekending. Sarah (Shauna McDonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and another friend haul a raft out of the rapids and meet up with Sarah’s adorable daughter and her handsome but frowny husband Paul. What’s wrong dear, she asks as the happy family rides home. Paul’s about to answer when wham, the movie gore begins.

Flip to a year later and the women reconvene, this time in the Appalachian Mountains with the dual purpose of doing more adventuring and helping Sarah get over the Horrible Thing that Happened a Year Ago. Sarah is joined on this trip by Beth (Alex Reid), her most understanding friend, as well as the gung-ho Juno and a trio of more or less indistinguishable girls — Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). The plan this year is to go caving, because nothing helps you work out life’s problems like a trip into a dark abyss and a couple of bouts with claustrophobia.

The women get into the cave, experience the requisite wonder at nature and then, hey, what’s that noise. Sarah is the first one to hear skittery sounds behind her and see flashes of movement just outside her peripheral vision. Naturally, these early warnings are chalked up as signs of her emotional distress. But after a cave-in, some poor navigation and the sudden appearance of a pale humanoid vaguely resembling the flukeman from that The X-Files episode, the whole group gets a case of the freak-outs and we start the running and screaming and bleeding.

The movie sets up a couple of nice conflicts from the beginning so we have not just the mutants to deal with but possible tensions within the group of girls. I like that the movie allows for a certain amount of bad behavior among the female characters even while they remain believable as strong, capable women. When the cave-dwellers attack, there is very little of the high-pitched, spider-in-my-hair shrieking normally given to female characters as a reaction. Instead, the women respond by trying to learn how the mutants operate, their strengths and weaknesses, their possible means of exiting the cave. When Sarah, who more-or-less serves as the main character, finally does let loose with a scream, it’s angry and primal and you half expect her to beat her chest, Kong-style.

To say that a horror movie has sass makes it sound like Kirsten Dunst is going to pop up and throw out a few zingers about cheer tactics. The Descent is not silly — well, not silly for a movie featuring giant worm-ish subterranean human-creatures — and yet you can not help but think that it has sass. Its characters are attitude-packed and smart and it gives us a teeth-bared life-and-death struggle all the way to its closing minutes. Only in its very final scene does this movie come even close to disappointing (and I think that’s as a result of the film’s having a different ending for American distribution than it did in Europe; there’s something a little wishy-washy about that final note). And sure, most of these girls die, but the movie gives them respectfully bad-ass deaths. B+

— Amy Diaz


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