Midnight Screamings: The Descent and War of the Worlds

Seriously having difficulty viewing and wrapping my head around one specific film for Midnight Screenings, but I think I have it down for next week. In the meantime, here are two 2005 Midnight-appropriate horrors (one of them never really popularly understood as such, but somehow its Godzilla-sized budget only makes it all the more spectacular that it still has the look and feel of a grainy horror movie). Sorry for the delay. All will be corrected next week. 

The Descent

A stomach-churning introduction to the big leagues for British director Neil Marshall (who has since gone on to underachieve somewhat depressingly), this concrete slab of raw, untamed horror finds skeletons in the human closet and exploits them for gut-churning viscera. Monsters abound, both external and internal, but the film’s claustrophobic environment, a cave rendered with nightmarish use of single-color tints that distort and obfuscate reality, takes center stage, as does gender.

Horror films are well known for their misogynist treatment of women, using and abusing them for flesh (both intact and in tatters) and rendering them objects for play. If Marshall’s film continues this trend (as all films, especially horror, inevitably must make objects out of their characters), he does it with utmost respect and significant challenge to the mainstream norms of horror. He takes the central conceit of so many horrors – that of a director and/or writer grasping onto a select set of characters, plucking them up off of their everyday lives, and setting them down in a hell they cannot imagine – and boils it down to its primitive, protoplasmic essentials. And horror, if any genre does, knows how to work its magic most physically and directly when functioning at the most elemental of bases.

Now this doesn’t mean that the film lacks for theme; its simply that the theme is submerged into craft and the depth and texture of the characters and narrative become one with the delivery mechanism of claustrophobic horror. The central six women of the film – adventurous friends on a caving trip – are not script products reaped for the body harvest. They are well-realized, three-dimensional women, fearful and human in a living way. They quarrel, but they also work as a team when they need to, and they fight back with a vengeance; they show fear and guilt and conviction, and brittle souls abound. If main character Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is the only one the script affords a meaningful back-story, the in-the-moment details of dialogue establish a camaraderie and delineate the interpersonal histories of these six women, some of whom have a veiled distaste for each other, without pandering and with such a remarkable sense of narrative economy you have to stand up and cheer. Unlike most horrors, this film cares about its characters, taking time to define them through the everyday moments of joy and sadness that composite their day-to-day lives.

It’s all the better though that The Descent marries its character development to its tightly wound, skin-crawling package. It’s a visceral film, driven by pulsing urges so precise and so felt it hurts. The fierce editing, the frenetic, batty direction, the temperamental gaping flesh wound performances, all of them are spidery and fiery in the kind of way horror cinema never is in the 21st century. There’s a bit of colored abstraction, but the bulk of it is immediate and unsparing, a brutal beauty primed to mess with your day. Marshall takes claustrophobia to new heights by making sure everything is as low and ground-level as humanly possible, experimenting with shape and color and empty spaces to wonderfully burned-out effect. He also manages to coax some supremely naturalist performances from his female performers, treating them with respect and making low-key very high-stakes. And if, like me, you think sound mixing is first or second in the effectiveness of any horror film, The Descent has your back; its a bone-shaking work, with noises that pluck the nerves like bloody piano strings.

All in all, The Descent is a positively traumatic film, a work of almost-Giallo grandeur that somehow manages to play out primarily on a human level. The characters find themselves not alone in the caverns, but their greatest enemy is themselves. There’s a teething, turbulent worry throughout that just about refuses to give up or go away, and its all the product of tortured souls lost to themselves. A slowly unfurling subtext as slinky and morbid as the film itself hints more than it explicitly says, defining character and trauma based on reaction to present-tense events and seeing a morality play of six characters in search of an exit unfold before our eyes.

The Descent is anxious and perturbed in a way that few horrors are and more interested in the messy bits of the human condition – this film’s flesh is internal, as well as external. But, for its psycho-social inner chaos, it’s also astoundingly simple, never obtuse and puzzley in the way of many horrors that go back for seconds on writing to the point where no room is left for genuine filmmaking in the mix. It’s a film’s film to the core. And it hurts, on too many levels to count.

Score: 9/10

War of the Worlds (2005)

I’m not what one might call a Spielberg apologist. Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are all-time genre classics, as artistically sound and beautifully composed as they are rip-roaring and easy to connect with. In general, however, his buttoned-up pop sentimentalism has never been of much use to me. Perhaps for this reason more than anything else, War of the Worlds really had it in for me and has a smash-up time getting there. It had something to prove, and it shows it. “Pop” Spielberg has never, ever made something like this before, and this 2005 flesh wound of a film is the rare summer blockbuster that is not simply underrated by the standards of the type, but in the film canon more generally.

Paranoid, numbing, and astoundingly infused with the cinematic language of horror like no extra-budgeted blockbuster has ever even glanced at, Spielberg’s work trades in frothy fun for grandiose melancholy and approaches something in the ballpark of genuine nihilism with its unfurled expressionism. It’s a statement, a spellbindingly beautiful horror on a personal level that sees humanity dwarfed by invaders that do not so much attack us as happen to us. War of the Worlds is not simply great, forward-thinking sci-fi, but it owes something fierce to the history of grainy Midnight horror (Spielberg’s usual number-two Janusz Kaminski in the cinematographer chair is absolutely awe-inspiring here). It is one of the greatest blockbusters of our time.

Spielberg’s craft is impeccable, putting a personal statement on an impersonal budget. The colors are muted and barren, except when they’re stunningly saturated in crimson and a frosty-blue, and death hangs over every scene. Visually, Spielberg allows scenes to draw out for the longest possible amount of time without actually killing the pacing, and he orchestrates destruction in paranoid reds, blinding white light that has the unmistakable power to blur the logic of characters, and dark, oppressive blackness. It’s no coincidence that one of the film’s most masterful bits, the initial alien attack, flexes the same muscles Spielberg uses to put us in the heat of the moment during WWII seven years before this film saw the light of day. But its when things turn dark and dreary that his craft gives way to true art interested in the intersection of color, shape, and emotion. This is not a film with a great screenplay – in fact on paper it’s all rather tepid – but Spielberg manages to create something truly compelling out of the pieces. It may be his most dangerous pop feature film ever, and that he uses this elegance to wholly disconcerting effects is, in its own way, a fairly stunning slice of blockbuster subversion.

Furthermore, Spielberg’s only-slightly diffused expressionist horror is fundamentally tied into the human narrative. It’s showy, in other words, but it’s not all for show. When one thinks of a disaster film, what most immediately comes to mind? There’s a story, yeah, there’s characters, yeah, there’s bad physics and all that good stuff. But the big money shots, the ones these films look to for their structural architecture to under-gird the ornamentation of characters, and where most of the budgets go. These are the big cutaways to (insert foreign city here) being destroyed early in the film and (insert US city here) later in the film, the edits quite literally segmenting off human consequence from the sequences almost like overblown non-sequiturs. They’re separated filmically and diegetically, not so much existing to the character in a personal sense as vomited out for us, the audience, as a carnal pleasure.

War of the Worlds ruthlessly reins in this distance. Oh, there’s special effects and plenty of them. But the camera doesn’t ogle them – instead the lens quavers around main character Ray (Tom Cruise, used effectively as a meat-bag and playing a figure of less than solid repute with scrubby dignity). We don’t “analyze” the slaughter from the big picture, “survey” the land on the way to government strongholds, and “scrutinize” out how to beat the enemy with all manner of unwieldy military-text popping up all over the screen; we confront the enemy as a simple, unspeakable fact and “deal” with it by running and praying. We’re in the dark, an existential void with no knowledge or sense of explication to bring us into the proverbial light.

It’s a remarkably confident work, always playing out on a human level and tackling the alien invasion as a truly unfathomable, present-tense fact defying any logical reasoning. There’s no explanation, with any and all details coming as figments and rumors in the moment, and the ending to the conflict is wonderfully arbitrary, a statement of dour, gloomy nihilist chance masquerading as a fluffy pate solution. Sure, the post-ending is awful, but it evaporates in quite literally half a minute, playing like an afterthought more than a genuine part of the film. It’s almost as if the producers, fearing the film to be too dour, forced a happy ending onto Spielberg, who openly mocked them by cutting the sequence to its barest minimum so as to be intentionally unsatisfying and jarringly dissonant. It’s like a parody of a Spielberg film more than the real thing (okay this isn’t quite Murnau’s The Last Laugh here, but the ending almost matches it for how obviously detached it is from the rest of the film, and how intentional this distance seems).

Altogether, it’s a tight, poisonous little film, a work that feels much more personal and intimate than it has any right to be. There’s nothing in the way of extraneous material, leaving us stranded in the dark world its characters now occupy, and it’s all the better for it. And when it goes big, it has the filmic chops to back it up. It’s a character blockbuster, all about the images and sounds of destruction and chaos raking across a single human being in the center of the storm’s eye. It’s a disharmonious, tormented angry rager, not at all “safe” in the way we might expect from a summer blockbuster. It doesn’t revel in disaster – it captures the bare hell of it and slathers it up on screen unadorned.

Score: 9/10


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