October 28, 2007

Halloween Treats

Halloween weekend in my house always includes a few frightening movies, played back-to-back and viewed with friends (beer, coffee, and chips also in abundance). This year, in addition to a few “scary” Three Stooges shorts inserted to break up the gloom, were two offerings I had never seen before: The Descent (2005) and Saw (2004). I often prefer older, classic movies—such as The Omen—so this year I went for the new(ish).


The Descent

This movie involves a group of six women who partake in a yearly adventure-sport outing. Shortly after a white water rafting trip in Scotland, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and young daughter to a grisly automobile accident. Her strong-willed friend Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince her to join the next expedition—a caving excursion in a scarcely populated area of North Carolina.

After arriving and entering the cave system, things begin to go badly wrong. The women are trapped by a cave-in, and Juno admits that, rather than exploring the ‘boring” cave system they had planned to visit, that she purposefully led them to an unmapped, unexplored cave system. The ladies hunt for a way out, struggling with injuries, short supplies, and each other, and just as things can’t apparently get worse they do—something else in the caves is alive and wants to feed on them.

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The film worked for me. This is straight-up horror. The film-makers don’t bother with gratuitous topless scenes or silly humor—this is pure horror, like it or not.

The six characters, while not all well defined, are realistic and reflect all stripes from the reckless and headstrong to the meek and over-cautious. All the major food groups of horror are represented: claustrophobia, darkness, fear of heights, painful injury, being trapped, being hunted, and friends you cannot trust. Jump-at-you scares are coupled with rising dread well. My biggest complaints: at times, especially as the action picks up in the last third of the movie, it’s difficult to tell whom is with whom or where people are in the caves; the creatures also could have used a slower revelation, in that once the women become clued in that they may not be alone, the creatures are there in abundance attacking them. The creatures themselves, described as “crawlers” in the credits, were well played and frightening. Watching this film definitely helps put the fright back into visions of RPG explorers wending their way through dark cave systems.

Saw

This film has become a popular franchise, so a I knew it was just a matter of time before I saw it. For the uninitiated: the plot of this first installment finds two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) awaking in a dirty room, chained to the wall. Neither one appears to know the other. They discover cassette tapes in their pockets and, after obtaining a recorder clutched in the palm of a corpse lying between them, play the tapes. They are being held captive by Jigsaw, a serial killer know for placing his victims in devious deathtraps where they must undertake almost unthinkable actions to survive. Following slim clues, they find hacksaws that are too thin to cut the heavy chains that bind them … but perfectly adequate for cutting off their feet. Meanwhile Dr. Gordon is told that he must kill the increasingly untrustworthy Adam by 6-o-clock—or his family will die.


For a series of films known for its gore (the third installment is reputed to be particularly gruesome) I found this film very “blood light” and far more of a mental exercise. This is not to say it doesn’t work—it does. At times the plot gets stretched a bit thin, and the film must be viewed tongue in check, but watched in that light I thought it to be an effective, interesting bit of psychological horror. I was happy to see Danny Glover in the role of an obsessed detective, and Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannel (who also co-wrote the movie) turn in reasonable performances.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween!
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