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Surprise, surprise

Two late-summer entries are better than expected



The poster for The Descent states that it comes from the same studio that brought us Saw and Hostel, and I wasn't sure whether that was meant to be taken as a boast or a threat.

But let's not solely focus on Lions Gate, since they're hardly the only ones sticking it to the horror genre these days. Virtually every studio in Hollywood has done its part to denigrate the form, either by producing terror tales lacking in even the most rudimentary elements of filmmaking (Resident Evil, Alone In the Dark) or by releasing inept remakes of classics that still hold up well (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, House of Wax, The Omen). And we can't count on our friends overseas to rescue the genre: France's contribution was the awful High Tension, Australia countered with the equally dismal Wolf Creek, and the avalanche of spooky stories from Japan threatens to spill over into self-parody.

And now here's England trying to get into the game with The Descent. Please. And what's with that plot, centered on a group of people trapped in a cave with a shadowy menace? Didn't we just see a film like this, which cut to the chase by actually calling itself The Cave? Nope, not even the hype (largely from online fanboy critics) proclaiming this as one of the best horror films in decades could stir anything in me beyond weary resignation.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that The Descent is indeed worth its weight in thrills and chills, as writer-director Neil Marshall has produced one of the finest horror yarns in many a full moon. It isn't necessarily scary (though many viewers will jump at the expected moments), but it maintains its own level of high tension from start to finish. More importantly, Marshall makes sure to give us six distinguishable protagonists, genuinely menacing creatures and dashes of intriguing subtext that allow it to remain even more rooted in our thoughts after the auditorium lights have come up.

The central character is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), a Scottish woman who, as the picture opens, suffers a terrible loss. Cut to a year later, when two of Sarah's close friends, the easygoing Beth (Alex Reid) and the competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza), talk their fellow outdoor enthusiast into tagging along on a spelunking expedition deep in the Appalachian mountains. They're joined by three other women -- Juno's feisty protégée Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring) -- and together the sextet embark on an adventure that they hope will not only produce the desired sense of merriment but also allow Sarah to move past her recent tragedy, even if only temporarily.

Unfortunately, they pick the wrong cave. As they move deeper into the earth's bowels, they experience a major setback as a portion of the cave behind them collapses, making a retreat impossible. Instead, they're forced to search for an alternate escape route, a proposition that becomes even more terrifying once Sarah sees that they're not alone down there in the dark. Initially blowing off her sightings as the hallucinations of a traumatized woman, the other members of the team soon realize that this cave is populated by (as another movie called them) CHUD. In case you're wondering, that stands for cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. And they come bearing sharp teeth. And huge appetites.

Taking into account a budget that's peanuts compared to what Hollywood filmmakers spend on similar projects, The Descent might be a "B" movie, but it sure as hell doesn't look like one. Even more than The Blair Witch Project, this picture derives plenty of mileage out of its superb use of the darkness -- during the first half, Marshall apes directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Jacques Tourneur by using lighting schemes and shadow play to maximize the suspense. Even before the creatures show up, he's already established that this cave is one scary place in which to be fooling around.

Once the cave critters (who look like Gollum's cousins) show up, the film turns into an Evil Dead-like orgy of gore. It's during this fast and furious section when Marshall allows his movie-buff side to take over, offering homages to Carrie, Deliverance, Alien/Aliens and, if I'm not mistaken, even Apocalypse Now. It leads to an ending that disturbs on more than one level, though it's a shame Lions Gate didn't retain the original international ending, which is even more ingenious and more uncompromising (something tells me it'll show up as an extra feature on the DVD).

The Descent is so expertly made that it more than holds its own as a full-throttle horror flick, yet it's Marshall's decision to provide it with a psychological bent that puts it firmly over the top. Guilt -- or, more specifically, survivor's guilt -- is rarely addressed in movies of this kind, yet from its opening tragedy to a shocking incident that occurs halfway through the film (you won't see this coming), the film imbues its female protagonists with messy moral dilemmas that allow them to alternate between heroine and villain, survivor and victim, wallflower and warrior. In fact, there's so much baggage attached to two members of the group that we occasionally forget the other, more immediate menace on hand. But then the teeth start gnashing and the blood starts flowing, and in an instant, we remember all too well.

LIKE SPAM, energy drinks and the music of Yanni, Will Ferrell is one of those acquired tastes that satisfy devotees while perplexing everyone else.

A "B"-level Saturday Night Live player who, by virtue of one smash hit (Elf), found himself elevated to the same lofty playing field populated (presently and/or previously) by SNL superstars like John Belushi, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, Ferrell often seems adrift on the big screen, appearing in more flops than hits and frequently wearing out his welcome in even the smallest roles (as one example, the funny Wedding Crashers stopped dead in its tracks around the time he showed up for his extended cameo). So while some folks swear by his 2004 starring vehicle Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, I'm not one of them. This one-note movie struck me as annoying rather than amusing, meaning I wasn't exactly anticipating Ferrell and director Adam McKay reteaming for a comedy about a NASCAR redneck.

My mistake. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is often uproarious, and it's clever in a way that Anchorman rarely attempted. While it never reaches the giddy highs of last summer's premiere stupid-smart comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it's consistently pleasurable and offers a surprisingly steady stream of laugh-out-loud moments. You might not respect yourself the next morning, but while it unfolds, you'll be happy to lower yourself to its level.

Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby is also an egotistical, none-too-bright boor. "I piss excellence," he declares, and his standing as NASCAR's best driver certainly signals that he's excellent at something. He has a best friend (John C. Reilly) who's even dumber than he is, a blonde trophy wife (Leslie Bibb) who's always looking to get ahead, and two obnoxious sons named Walker and Texas Ranger ("But we call him TR for short"). Ricky has spent his life trying to work out issues with his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole, delivering the film's shrewdest comic performance), but that doesn't excuse his repellent behavior and the way he takes everyone and everything for granted. Clearly, Ricky Bobby is primed to receive a comeuppance, and it arrives in the form of Jean Girard (hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen), a French homosexual race car driver whose prowess on the track leads to Ricky's fall from grace and his subsequent (and humbled) climb back to the top.

Movies of this ilk abound with "gay panic" gags, but Talladega Nights smartly turns this attitude on itself, in effect allowing the character of Jean Girard to be in on the jokes rather than the butt of the jokes. Indeed, the film makes a habit of slightly shifting expectations: A sentimental moment involving seat tickets morphs into one of the piece's biggest laughs.

And don't even get me started on the Highlander quips.

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