Monday, October 15, 2012

Goin' down to the underground: The Descent and Born of Earth


In 1999, mountain climber-turned-author Jeff Long published a remarkable novel entitled The Descent. A rousing hybrid of horror, science fiction and adventure, the novel chronicles the discovery of a vast network of interconnected caverns beneath the surface of the Earth that is home to a species of devolved hominids with predilections toward cruelty and cannibalism. It is revealed that these beings, who branched off from the same roots as modern humans and were once superior to us, are the basis for the recurring legends of subterranean devils and demons throughout history, and their nightmarish, abyssal homeland naturally turns out to be a place better known abstractly as Hell. Conflicts erupt when the primitive cave dwellers venture into the surface world en masse, while corporate interests and individual settlers attempt to stake their claims in the resource-rich underworld. The book is by turns thrilling, stomach-turning, frightening, awe-inspiring and moving; it's truly vast in scope, and Long brilliantly juggles multiple storylines and a huge cast of characters, capping things off with a harrowing journey underneath the Pacific Ocean by a team of scientists and mercenaries. Long's extensive knowledge of climbing high mountains is easily inverted, providing a welcome sense of authenticity to his descriptions of a descent into the dark recesses of the planet.


The Descent quickly captivated me, and it has since become my favorite novel. I've read it (along with its sequel, Deeper) repeatedly over the past 13 years, and each time, I've contemplated what an amazing film it might make. I say "might make," because The Descent tells a massively complex and epic story, and it would take a monumental effort to commit a reasonably faithful adaptation to film. The budget for such a project would be enormous, and some of the themes the book explores would likely be unpalatable for a mass audience, to say nothing of it's sometimes ghastly scenes of violence. As we saw earlier this year, when the plugged was pulled on Guillermo del Toro's long-planned adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, the major Hollywood studios really don't have the stomach for big-budget, R-rated horror films any more. Nevertheless, in the years since its publication, there have been two films that have at least touched upon some of the novel's plot points, with varying degrees of success.


 

When Neil Marshall's 2005 British horror film The Descent was first announced, fans of Jeff Long's novel could have been forgiven for believing it to be a direct adaptation of the book; many of us were initially convinced that was exactly what it was. The film promised to tell the story of a group of caving enthusiasts who encounter a ghastly race of subterranean humanoids, and the title, coupled with the underground setting and the horrifying, flesh-eating creatures gave the impression that Long's novel might have been a source of inspiration. Ultimately, it ended up being more of a coincidence than anything. While Marshall's film does share certain similarities with the book, and may have even been partially inspired by it on a certain level, it really is its own animal.


The film introduces a group of female friends, including Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who convene periodically for an outdoor adventure of the extreme variety. Following a whitewater rafting trip in Scotland, Sarah's husband and only child are killed in an automobile accident. A year later, the women gather again for a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. The other women hope that the diversion will help Sarah, who is still struggling to cope with her loss. After they're trapped by a cave-in, Juno reveals that they're not in the well-known cave system the others believed they'd be exploring but an uncharted system Juno had hoped they could conquer and name. It soon becomes clear that they're not alone, as a race of vicious, blind, flesh-eating predators begins to prey on them. The women struggle to elude the carnivorous monsters (which the filmmakers refer to as Crawlers) and deal with their own interpersonal conflicts while trying desperately to find another way out of the cave.


At the time of its release, The Descent was hyped as being one of the scariest films ever made, a boast that always brings out my inner skeptic. I missed its brief theatrical release in the US, but I caught up with it when it came out on DVD. While I enjoyed the film well enough the first time around, I allowed myself to buy into the hype, and I was perhaps a bit disappointed that it didn't live up to my unreasonably lofty expectations. Subsequent viewings, however, have deepened my appreciation for the film immensely. Marshall, who had previously directed the well-received werewolf flick Dog Soldiers, has a firm command over the film; he starts things off with a bang, then resets and gradually builds the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The Descent is indeed very, very scary, but it's also very emotionally resonant. There's an undercurrent of grief and loss that runs through the film and adds a poignant element, always an effective thing in a horror film, which are too-often devoid of any emotions other than fear. While in the hospital following the opening car crash, Sarah has an eerie dream involving a darkened corridor that foreshadows later events in the film, and her emotional breakdown upon awakening and learning of the death of her family is difficult to watch. The acting, especially by leads Macdonald and Mendoza, is of a uniformly high quality, and it's refreshing to see a film packed with strong, female protagonists. There are literally no noteworthy male characters in the film save for Sarah's ill-fated husband and the male Crawlers.



Of course, The Descent is at its core a survival horror film, and once it gets going, it delivers the expected elements in spades. The unrated version is extremely gory, as the Crawlers attempt (often with graphic success) to capture and devour the cavers, who fight for their lives with equal ferocity. In particular, Sarah transforms from an emotionally fragile woman at the beginning to a sort of Terminator figure by the end, mercilessly dispatching the subhuman Crawlers left and right but also dishing out a ruthless form of justice to a fellow group member who has transgressed against her in more ways than one. Remarkably, the film's cave scenes were all filmed on studio-built sets, but it's impossible to distinguish them from the real thing. An early scene which showcases the group working their way through an extremely tight space which ultimately collapses will undoubtedly be nerve-wracking for anyone who suffers from even a hint of claustrophobia. I have no doubt that having seen this film in a darkened theater would have added to its effect immensely, and I'm sorry that I didn't go when I had the chance, although the US theatrical version had its violence toned down to secure an R rating and also had its ending tampered with at the behest of preview audiences who found the original finale too bleak. As it stands, I much prefer the original ending; although it is unquestionably downbeat and grim, it has a certain poetry that brings the film's poignant streak full circle. (In any case, the ending was negated by the film's sequel, The Descent: Part 2, which picks up right where this one leaves off.) David Julyan's hauntingly effective score accents the film perfectly; it's scary and ominous when it needs to be, and appropriately somber during the more emotional scenes.


While The Descent is a superb movie in and of itself, for those of us who were hoping for an adaptation of Jeff Long's novel, it does fall somewhat short. I was therefore excited to discover a little-known 2008 film directed by Tommy Brunswick and entitled Born of Earth, which sounded like it might have taken more direct inspiration from the book, as it deals with subterranean creatures who have lived underground for millenia but emerge from time to time to abduct humans. Sadly, although it has one or two decent moments, it's by and large a resolutely awful film which makes the average SyFy Channel movie seem masterful in comparison. It stars Daniel Baldwin as Danny Kessler, a husband and father living in Prophet Hills, a small Michigan town. In the opening sequence, which is probably the most effective part of the film, his wife is butchered and his children are abducted by grotesque humanoids that emerge from the ground outside their home. Kessler is suspected of having committed the crimes, but is cleared and eventually leaves town. He reads a book by a professor who reports that similar events have been chronicled throughout history and who expects another incursion from below to happen again on a larger scale, prompting Kessler to return to Prophet Hills in an effort to protect his sister-in-law and her daughter from meeting the same fate as his family. Naturally, no one believes him, and the greedy mayor (Brad Dourif) enlists the help of the Sheriff (James Russo) to run Kessler out of town before his outlandish claims can derail a lucrative development deal. Kessler races to elude the authorities while trying to convince his skeptical relatives that they're in mortal danger. Of course, the promised return of the subterranean hordes comes to pass, and the residents of Prophet Hills are faced with a nightmarish invasion from beneath their feet.


A title card at the very beginning of Born of Earth tips the film's hand as to the origin of the creatures; they're referred to as demons, and we're informed that they were banished to the Earth's caverns after an ancient battle. This seemingly occult element is borne out by the creatures themselves, who flash brightly before turning into piles of dirt when killed (admittedly, a unique twist). This plot element removes the film from the realm of speculative fiction that Jeff Long's novel inhabits and makes it more of a generic supernatural horror film. With a few exceptions, the acting is execrable; many of the performers are clearly local amateurs who were seemingly enlisted by the low-budget production to cut costs, and they're not up to the task, especially when called upon to express big emotions. Frankly, given the lousy script, even the decent actors in the film have had a hard time coming up with anything worthwhile. Baldwin does what he can with the material, which isn't much, but he's occasionally believable. Dourif, on the other hand, provides a typically manic and enjoyable performance as the asshole mayor. The creature effects are done reasonably well considering the budget, and the opening scene with them crawling horizontally along the side of the Kessler home is fairly creepy (even though it echoes similar scenes in The Descent), but the odd movements utilized by the actors occasionally make it seem like they're performing some sort of interpretive dance routine which leads to unintentional laughs. An apocalyptic finale in the streets of Prophet Hills with cheap-looking CGI is laughably bad. While the filmmakers win points for trying something different (and for seemingly being savvy enough to look to Long's novel for inspiration), the end result is pretty shoddy.


It seems that fans of The Descent (the book) who still hope to someday see a faithful film adaptation will have to continue to wait, just like we've been waiting less-than-patiently for Long to finish the rumored third novel in the series (come on Jeff, you're killing us!). A definitive film version may in fact never be made, but for those who crave more subterranean horrors, Neil Marshall's gripping film The Descent and the comparatively lackluster Born of Earth will have to do for now.

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