The Descent

the_descentThe Descent is bursting with Bechdel goodwill. But that’s neither here nor there. At the end of the day, this semi-gratifying spelunker thriller comes up short, regardless of what’s between its legs.

USA Today had an interesting take that’s more or less on-point: “For my money, [the] first 20 or so minutes are the best in the film. Once the real adventure gets underway in the cave, things get less interesting…”

Seldom is a set up as compelling as what we’re eased into here: On the return from an extreme sports adventure, there’s a grisly crash. The carnage spares Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), but kills her husband Paul and daughter Jessica.

A year later, a still-shaken Sarah ventures into the great outdoors for some dark adventures — literally — to explore caves with her mostly seasoned friends, Juno, Beth, Sam, Rebecca and newbie Holly.

They settle down to a session of carousing and boozing it up, heading out to explore once the fog of a morning hangover’s barely lifted.

One year later, Sarah and her friends Juno, Beth, Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and newcomer Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) are reunited at a cabin in the foothills of North Carolina for cave-exploring adventure. The next day, they hike up to a cavernous entrance and descend.

The Appalachian Mountains are a treat. It’s a darkly majestic bit of the world out there that director Neil Marshall faithfully reproduces.

As the group of friends descend into a metaphorical / literal hell, it’s claustrophobic and intense as only a cave can be, going over some of the same survivalist terrain as Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours.

The first part of The Descent is a gripping test of will, and overcoming of adversity through teamwork.

But it’s when the supernatural element rears its hissing head that this underground terror cools its jets as much of the action is shrouded in near pitch-black.

Man (or in this case woman) vs nature would’ve been plenty.

*** (out of 5)

Child’s Play

Childs-play-movie-poster1In The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead, author Adam Rockoff asked, “Why is Halloween loved but Friday the 13th despised?” One word. Blood.

Critics love restraint and Child’s Play is mostly bloodless too. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t bloodcurdling. Roger Ebert, whose antipathy to horror was infamous, said the film was “cheerfully energetic,” undoubtedly due to it holding back.

But for true fans, it’s neither here nor there if horror’s got gore. That’s at odds with public perception. We’re open to getting frights where we find them, even if it’s Toys ‘R’ Us. And unlike critics, we don’t punish films for gore. (The word “punish is forever ruined by Silent Night, Deadly Night.)

In Child’s Play, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, the series’ quality is inversely related to the number of lines spouted by its antagonist. For most of the first installment, the Chucky doll’s utterances are of the Ned Flanders variety, a “hi-da-lee-ho,” paired with an innocent rhyme, “I’m your friend to the end.” And when the doll becomes animate, it’s actually the silence that drive the horror, not the one-liners.

The spirit of a serial killer, Charles Lee Ray (an amalgam of Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray) enters into a Good Guys doll, which is then purchased in a back alley by a penny-pinching Chicago mom for her son Andy.

One night mom has to work late and Maggie, a babysitter co-worker, is a last minute sub to put Andy (and his new friend) to bed. Director Tom Holland makes great use of the hulking 19th century Brewster apartment complex in Chicago’s north side, and the creepy, creaky building becomes a character until itself, almost like the sprawling Brooklyn mansion in The Sentinel. It’s in the apartment’s living room where Chucky comes to life, after making excuses via Andy to stay up late “to watch the 9 O’Clock news.” Dutiful Maggie balks, and for her troubles she’s pummeled with a hammer between the eyes, causing her to fall to her death from the kitchen window.

childs_play_movieChicago’s Finest is soon on the scene, including the former Mr. Susan Sarandon, Chris (speaking of The Sentinel).

The cops notice tiny footprints leading up to the crime scene, and eventually, they realize there’s a killer in their midst, the likes of which unseen in The Windy City since perhaps Henry in Portrait of a Serial Killer.

The animate doll, unwilling to be trapped in a plastic body for eternity, tracks down a Voodoo practitioner to “be a real boy,” to quote Pinocchio, and leads sweet Andy out on a CTA train to a seedy neighborhood (probably the kind President Obama once tried to “community organize).

Chicago PD finally comes around after dismissing mom’s tale of a doll minus its batteries that’s wreaking havoc.

The film holds up exceedingly well. A mere blink from the psycho ginger doll causes shivers. Creepy dolls may be overused in supernatural horrors, but killer dolls are a different matter entirely.

And here’s some advice: as collectors know, these toys retain their value when kept in their packaging.

***3/4 (out of 5)