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FIVE FILMS FROM...2005



THE DESCENT

(Directed by Neil Marshall)


'I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider'


Whilst Neil Marshall's film Dog Soldiers (2002) was a moderate success and eventually became a beloved cult movie (as well as a staple of UK late-night streaming channels these days), the director didn’t really set out to become known as a horror filmmaker as such. However, when the opportunity arose to make this claustrophobic creature feature, he saw the potential and started work on bringing it to the big screen. At the time, the film was primarily noted for its (almost) all-female cast and the effective mixture of raw emotions and cryptozoological shenanigans. That title is not just about going underground.  And then there’s the ending… but we’ll get to that later. Having worked on the typical macho army-male perspective of fighting monsters in “Dog”, Marshall took care to talk to female colleagues and friends about the approach he should take with his narrative. He also made sure to cast a wide range of actresses from different regions and backgrounds for the femme ensemble, which included Shauna Macdonald (Howl, Nails, etc.), Myanna Buring (Twilight, Ripper Street), Nora-Jane Moore (Doomsday), and several others. The cast had to commit to survival training with some of them performing their own stunts and climbing scenes. Fast-tracked to beat the similarly themed Lena Headey movie The Cave, it is generally seen as Marshall’s best movie and another modern genre classic.

 

It follows the exploits of a group of extreme-sporting female besties. One year since Sarah (Macdonald) lost her husband and daughter in a road accident (an out-of-nowhere shock when you first see the movie) she’s still somewhat estranged from her previous lifestyle. Understandably crippled by a sense of grief and overwhelming loss, Sarah nonetheless has the support of her gal-pals, including Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza). To lift the widow out of her depression, they arrange to meet in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina for a spelunking adventure, designed to induce the adrenaline rushes that they have previously shared. Despite Juno’s assurance that the cave system is safe, they travel away from the tourist trails and into unexplored tunnels. As could be expected, (bat)shit hits the fan, exits collapse and they become trapped. And they’re not alone, as they find themselves in the company of carnivorous “Crawlers”. These blind and albino offshoots of humanity soon start to hunt down the group. But these girls aren’t going down without a fight… even if there are potentially deadly secrets between them.

 

Perhaps the most impressive and satisfying aspect of The Descent is the way that Marshall juggles emotional intensity with horror tropes, not to mention some superb jump-scares (Sarah’s dream in the cabin is a corker!). In retrospect, it’s also surprising just how long the plot takes to introduce the subterranean “Crawlers”. The mood and tone of the first half of the film is unsettling and genuinely scary before there’s even a hint of the albino critters. It is entirely feasible that the film could have been just as compelling without their … umm … “interventions”. That said, they bring an extra layer of fear to the proceedings that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise and add innovation to the set-up that similar films have not been able to match (*cough*The Cave*cough*).

 

The entire cast is top-notch, but Macdonald routinely gets picked out for her excellent multi-layered performance as she swings between grief, determination, anger, and other soul-bearing emotions. The look on her face in the (original UK) final scene just says it all. Mendoza also deserves credit for giving the sly Juno some depth, as do the four other female leads. Props must also go to David Julyan, for a score that sounds like it belongs to a Hollywood blockbuster rather than a modestly budgeted horror. The external shots, both overhead and scenery-based, also look high-quality and bear comparison with the opening of Kubrick’s The Shining. Add to that, some prime cuts of sarcastic Brit humour in the screenplay, with some lovely sharp lines and some fine English f-bombing all over the place. (“I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider!”).

 

All in all, the film was sort of a “lightning in a bottle affair”, with all elements just hanging together so well. The opening half is a claustrophobic nightmare which is (mostly) believable in how it puts the cast into peril, whilst dropping hints about the unseen menace with some lovely and brief mythology-building details, such as the 100-year-old climbing equipment, the cave-paintings, etc. When the “Crawlers” finally appear, despite their relative simplicity in appearance (a cross between a roided-up Gollum and a vampire), the lack of natural light and atmospheric shock scenes make them extremely effective. If this had been made now, they would likely have been “enhanced” by cheap CGI, but happily, they are all realised with good old practical FX. Adding to this fun mixture are some gnarly body wounds and shock deaths, which bite especially hard since the screenplay has made the effort to make all of the protagonists three-dimensional and relatable. Plenty of crawlers get satisfyingly offed by the inventive ladies as they try to avoid becoming the next-day’s creature crap.

 

Given that all of the cave interiors were shot in studios, they look damned convincing for the most part and frame the horror/action sequences perfectly, apart from two minor examples of a dodgy green screen, which is forgivable given the quality of the rest of the shoot. However, it’s best praised for the emotional roller-coaster it takes the viewer on. There’s no mercy or quarter given in the violence and Sarah becomes a legitimate horror-action-icon by the final scenes, with the most vicious side-eyes ever seen on screen delivered by Macdonald. As noted earlier, the “Descent” in the title, doesn’t just refer to the rappelling-down-deep-holes. It also points towards the women’s journey towards a more animalistic version of themselves, similar to the way that Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes showed. This is gloriously depicted by linear and sparsely lit shots showing the group’s movements, as well as the “survival of the fittest” moments, that sacrifice friendships. Even the film’s original poster reflects this as it recreates Philippe Halsman’s “In Voluptas Mors”, with the cast posing to form a skull face.

 

And then there’s the ending. Spoiler alert. The original UK ending has a lead character hallucinating a positive outcome, which was adopted as being reality and canon for the US release.  This enabled a sequel, which brought back “dead” characters and wasn’t half as good. Marshall himself has yet to top this, with his later projects lacking the intensity and intelligence of this. Revisit the depths and remind yourself why this was one of the best films of the year.

Fun Fact: In one scene, Sarah falls into a mass of bones and bodies which represent the remnants of past victims consumed by the Crawlers. Mixed in amongst the gory remains is a wolf's head, which was a leftover prop from one of the werewolves from Marshall's “Dog Soldiers”. This could be considered as a crossover between the movies if you want to think hard enough about it. Who’s up for “Dogs Vs. Crawlers”? Won’t happen, but we can dream…



Wolf Creek

(Directed by Greg McLean)


'Nothin' like rain water from the top-end.'

The average person just cannot fathom how the mind of serial killers and psychopaths works. And this, as psychologists continually tell us, is a very good thing. If you don’t understand why one person can inflict pain and suffering on another for no real reason, well, it means you’re less likely to do the same thing. This indifference to cruelty doesn’t just apply to fictional madmen like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. It also applies to real-life individuals such as Ivan Robert Marko Milat, who became known as the “Backpacker Murderer”. He was an Australian serial killer who abducted, assaulted, robbed, and murdered at least seven people between 1989 and 1992. Perhaps, the scariest thing about Milat was his lack of remorse and his apparent love of killing. The fear of individuals like this was reflected in this year’s Wolf Creek which was “based on true events", some of which were undoubtedly inspired by his crimes, as well as the tragic Peter Falconio murder in 2001. Often unfairly lumped in with other “torture porn” flicks of this era, Creek is actually a uniquely upsetting and harrowing experience that stands alone, despite its later sequel, series, and the commercialisation of its boogeyman. And that’s why it’s a film of the year.


It starts innocently enough, with a trio of backpackers enjoying an excursion across Australia and the Outback. After some city-based partying, Liz Hunter (Cassandra Macgrath), Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi), and Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips) buy a dilapidated car for the rest of their journey from Broome to Cairns. They stop to camp out at the remote National Park (after which the film is named).

Unfortunately, their vehicle becomes suspiciously defunct at this point and leaves them stranded. Thank God for Mick Taylor (John Jarratt, McLean’s first and only choice for the role). The jovial outbacker turns up out of nowhere and offers to fix their car for free, as well as giving them water to drink. A few hours later, Liz wakes up bound, gagged, and scared. Turns out that Mick is an unfettered psycho with no morals and no compassion, as well as no worries. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between the backpackers and the deranged countryman. And it ain’t pretty.


You need to factor in a slow burn of over 30 minutes or so before Mick Taylor appears and makes his true nature known. That’s partly what makes the rest of the film such a gut punch. The protagonists are shown to be decent and level-headed people. Ben in particular is held up as a moral benchmark to the scummy misogynists and homophobes that they encounter, and whilst he sticks up for his companions, he’s not dumb enough to pick fights or make waves when it’s not necessary. Full props to Macgrath and Morassi for their contributions and fleshing out of the characters, who bring heart and courage to their roles, without being last-girl tropes or dumb decision-makers. Cleverly, the narrative weaves several genre tropes into the story while remaining grimly believable. Mick’s “lair” could very well belong to Leatherface (complete with hanging corpses and chainsaws), and there’s even a “found footage” interlude when Liz finds a camcorder and can’t help a peep at the scenes within to confirm Mick’s stalking technique on other tourists.


The hugely patronising and utterly irredeemable villain is a truly hateful character who is impossible to side with. Blatantly hateful towards others who disrespect or disagree with his “caveman” views (check out the side-eye at the campsite), this is a non-supernatural antagonist that you want to see suffer and beaten. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily go that way. The wounds and psychological treatment inflicted on the leads are excruciating, especially given that their demises are often triggered by their compassion for their friends and a fight for survival. The “head-on-a-stick” sequence is as heartbreaking for its implications, as it is for the empathy you feel for the character. An overall feeling of nihilism is always present, and tragedy is not dwelt over in a ghoulish fashion, but shown as a matter of fact, such as the anti-climactic shooting of a major character. This is also the tone given to the unexpected coda sequence at the end, where the text provides an epilogue as if the whole thing was a documentary.

Much of the grim effectiveness of Mick is due to Jarratt’s performance. Almost likeable at his introduction, he’s the sort of cheerful drunk you would tolerate at a party but hope to never see again. Based on the “larrikin” trope of the Ozzie male, there’s also a touch of “Crocodile Dundee” about him. This enables, not one but two “knife” gags to be shoehorned in. He embellishes the role with a hideous cackle (like a sadistic version of Boycie from the Only Fools and Horses sitcom) and a condescending attitude towards outsiders that would be infuriating, were it not for the fact that he is an expert rifleman and keen butcher.


There’s an interesting feature about the making of the film online, which includes observations such as the unexpected rainstorms which had to be written into the script on the fly (causing the crew to rename the film Shit Creek). Documentary maker Will Gibson provides some stunning cinematography, finding real and genuine beauty in the desolate scenery, which is greatly underpinned by the sweeping music provided by composer Francois Tetatz. On repeat viewings (if you can stomach the treatment of the likeable leads more than once), you’ll be blown away by the sheer visual quality of some scenes, echoing the work of Peter Weir and seminal Ozzie films such as “Walkabout”.

It has to be admitted that when a belated sequel appeared in 2013 and the TV series in 2016, it did feel like the edge of Mick’s character was being lost, much in the same way that child-killer Freddy Krueger became a wise-cracking comic-book villain to some extent. For those wondering, Jarratt is supposedly still in the process of developing Wolf Creek 3 for the cinema. Those outside of Australia are probably not aware of sexual misconduct allegations that were aimed at him, although it must be emphasised that he was found not guilty of those in July 2019. He also fought against the damaging reporting of him by a major newspaper in the country. All of that, and COVID, stymied further Creek entries for a while. Mick may be back at some point, but like Psycho and Jaws, the original is still the best and works best by itself.  


Fun fact: The cast and crew were so bummed out by the torture scenes involving Kristy, (where the actress had to incessantly scream for hours on end), that they engaged in some production hi-jinks to cheer themselves up. This involved splicing some fart noises onto key scenes of the movie. One example shows Liz hilariously “shush” Kirsty after she “lets rip” whilst hiding from Mick. Puerile but awesome.   



CONSTANTINE

(Directed by Francis Lawrence)

'God's a kid with an ant farm, lady. He's not planning anything.'


Okay, bear with us here. Yes, it is based on a DC comic book character. But this is before all DC and Marvel characters just HAD to be in the same “cinematic universe”. Funny how that felt so exciting at the time and now constitutes an eye-roll and a box-office bomb. Much in the same way that the original “Blade” glossed over its printed origins, this project ignores much of what was on the pages of the source material. Most obviously, it swapped its trench-coated Sting-lookalike Liverpudlian anti-hero, for … err … Keanu Reeves in stoic mode. Yes, after he was once The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and before he dominated the action film genre with John Wick (2014), he took the role of a down-at-heel exorcist and demonologist. John Constantine is an extremely complex character, with one foot in heaven and one in hell, almost always putting his well-being before that of his friends and acquaintances. It was the directorial debut of Francis Lawrence, who would go onto I am Legend  two years later and then The Hunger Games franchise. Whatever your opinion of the film, it has a heck of a cast. Alongside Reeves, you’ll also find Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, Shia LaBeouf, and Djimon Hounsou

The story sets up the character of John Constantine as a perennially pissed off and cynical occult expert, with him first appearing and performing a straight-up exorcism.  Noticing a rise in demonic activity, he consults with the (apparently half-breed) Archangel Gabriel (Swinton at her best in an androgynous role). His time is short, and he is suffering from a terminal form of cancer, which drives his need to fight evil to balance the value of his soul. But when he meets Angela Dodson (Weisz) and investigates her sister’s suicide, he uncovers an insidious plot to raise Lucifer’s son from Hell and bring about an apocalypse. Time to try and beat the devil.


Truth be told, Constantine is unlikely to be in most horror fans “Best of…” listings. Those who love the comic-book version are perennially disgruntled by the differences, including appearance, accent, attitude, lore, etc. Another truth is that Reeves may be genuinely the “Nicest Bloke in the World” ™ outside of screen roles, but genre addicts have found it hard to warm to him until “John Wick” came along. His mangling of the Jonathan Harker role in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula might have something to do with that. That said, he is an action god now and that’s all in the past. Speaking of time passing, like many of the films we covered in these retrospectives, Constantine has gone on to gain a lot of love and respect as the years have progressed. So much so, that there are periodic reports that a direct sequel is being developed, which has been backed up by previous cast members such as Stormare and Reeves himself. And there are some good reasons for this…


Technically, because the film had a modest budget and did quite well globally, it made money even if was slammed by the critics and fan-based community at the time. But more importantly, it’s actually a pretty damned good film (pun intended). This is especially true if you strip away all the DC Comics baggage and hold it up as an original take on the character. Whilst it’s not exactly Angel Heart, its mixture of the occult and the noir genres stands up with the best of the rest and can arguably be seen as a real improvement on similar films such as Lord of Illusions or Cast a Deadly Spell. Reeves usual laconic and world-weary performance suits this version of Constantine, especially when working alongside the showier turns from Swinton and Stormare. Incidentally, despite a minimal appearance, Stormare steals the movie with an excellent contribution to the climax, which brings John’s story full circle, even as he flips him the bird in defiance.


Whilst it eschews the sexual and theological aspects of the mature “Hellblazer” comic of the time, it takes a defiant stance on Christian mythology, including some brave decisions about who the “villain” of the plot is. This is backed up by some nice imagery, such as Constantine’s descent into Hell, which looks like something that Lucio Fulci might have filmed if he’d had a generous CGI budget during his film career. There’s a great shot of our hero reaching for something as countless (literally brainless) demons try to claw him back to the Underworld. It’s moments such as this that make it stand out from the usual brainless attempts by film studios to meld modern horror with the world of the esoteric. It’s not perfect by any means, but the lead performances (including Weisz in a dual twin role before “Dead Ringers”) are better than you would think.


Whilst it’s not the “Bastard” JC that comic fans wanted, there’s a maturity about the depiction of the main character that is quite atypical for the time. He’s not doing “good deeds” or helping people for altruistic or higher purposes. He knows he is damned, and he just wants to curry favour with the Big Boss Almighty, so that he goes to heaven rather than burn in eternity. This leads to the extremely satisfying denouement which mirrors a major plot from the comics and remains faithful to the ideology therein. Besides this, it consistently throws out scenes that you’ve got to love for their bare-faced cheek. We still get umpteen exorcism scenes in movies today that riff on William Friedkin’s (RIP Sir) classic. But here, rather than “compelling the power of Christ” and forcing a demon to leave a girl’s body, he announces himself as “I’m John Constantine, Asshole!!”, punches it in its fleshy face, and traps it in a mirror before breaking it into a thousand pieces. Class. So, there are the WB animated and CW versions of JC for the comic fans. We’ll stick with KR’s version and his chain-smoking antics. Hope that sequel gets made eventually.


Fun Fact: One of the high points of the movie is Peter Stormare’s eccentric but chilling portrayal of Lucifer. He’s a practising Christian in real life and accepted the pivotal role only if he was given the freedom to style the character in his own way. Originally conceived to be a horned BDSM figure with spikes and leather, instead, Stormare eschewed stereotypes and designed the on-screen incarnation with an off-white linen suit, tempered with black tar dripping down from his neck to his feet. It works startlingly well as he tries to literally drag Constantine to Hell.



NOROI: THE CURSE

(Directed by Koji Shiraishi)

'No matter how terrifying, I want the truth.' It wouldn’t be controversial to say that in the early noughties, J-Horror was king. Whilst slashers reigned supreme in the late nineties, by the turn of the century audiences were getting a little jaded of watered down whodunnits with sexy ensemble casts (I mean, I remember those days quite fondly but whatever!). Although Ringu was made in 1998, it took a couple of years for it to find a Western audience, who lapped up the grungy, stern supernatural chills. It was the perfect antidote to the glossy teen slasher. Films such as Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Audition (1999) and Pulse (2001) followed and not only did we get American remakes of most of these, the general tone and aesthetic bled into American and European genre films. Horror trends are short-lived however and by 2005 it sort of felt like it was on its way out in terms of original J-horror fare. That is probably part of the reason why Koji Shiraishi’s found-footage horror Noroi: The Curse failed to make much of an impact (well, that and financial issues). Thankfully, it has gradually been gaining some admirers over the last decade or so – and for good reason.


A renowned paranormal researcher and author, Masafumi Koboyashi, disappeared during the production of a documentary film he was in the middle of making called, The Curse. So in true found-footage style, we get to bear witness to the recordings he had made right up until his disappearance. One of the wonderful things about Noroi: The Curse, is the rich tapestry of weird and uncanny narrative threads that are tugged at during the course of the unfinished ‘documentary’ that Koboyashi has made. Initially he’s investigating a woman and her son because neighbours are hearing the sounds of crying babies coming from their house – even though there is no baby in residence. The woman and her son move away and the neighbours soon die mysteriously. But hang on, now we’re switching focus to a girl called Kana Yano, who after displaying psychic abilities live on TV, simply vanishes into thin air!


Noroi bridges the gap between the end of the J-Horror phase and the upcoming found-footage craze that was to follow a couple of years later with the release of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007). It’s also got a strong folk sensibility too, with sacred shrines and rituals and ancient traditions all in there for good measure. Whilst most western found-footage flicks are self-contained and small scale, Noroi is a sprawling story with multiple characters and locations. It’s dense mythology and scattered narrative means that the running time clocks in at just under two hours. It’s a bit of an epic in that regard. But time flies when you’re being scared shitless. This is not a ghost train movie though, there are relatively few jumps or conventional scares. Instead it spends its time carefully building up a sense of real palpable dread and delivers some really grim and haunting imagery that will burrow its way into your brain. The ending is a suitably macabre conclusion to one of the most unsettling films of this particular era of J-Horror.


It is a little bit of an acquired taste. The switching between characters and times and locations may jar for some and there is no denying that it is rather plodding at times. It’s quite plot heavy as far as these types of films go too. So if you’re after a horror you can sit back and watch with your brain switched off, this isn’t going to work. But if you like a story you’ve got to work at and remain fully engaged with, then this is a little occult treat.


Fun fact: Although released in 2005 in Japan, it didn’t reach US audiences until 2020, when it landed on shudder.


HOUSE OF WAX

(Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra)


'Who are these people supposed to be? Aren't there supposed to be famous people in a wax museum? I don't recognise this guy.'


Please don’t hate us. We know that there were more than a handful of decent genre films releases in 2005 and a trashy teen slasher starring Paris Hilton doesn’t sound like it should figure on a top five list. But here we are! But hear us out, please. Because although House of Wax isn’t an important film in the grand scheme of things, it’s a genuinely entertaining and fun watch that came at a time when horror remakes were all the rage (The Fog and The Amityville Horror were also released in the same year). House of Wax cleverly avoids some of the potential pitfalls of all remakes by being about as loose as they come when it comes to honouring the original. Because although it shares the same title as Andre de Toth’s 1953 House of Wax, it really doesn’t have that much else in common with it. If anything, it feels more like a reimagining of David Schmoeller’s delightfully twisted (and underseen) Tourist Trap (1979).


Here, we have a group of six super-hot college kids who are heading south on their way to watch a football game. I mean, we could reel through the character names and their traits but it’s your usual gang of hedonistic and slightly annoying kidults, who spend pretty much all their time ribbing each other and being crude. The journey is too long to do in one stint so after they get a little lost, they decide to set up camp in the middle of a remote wooded area. I mean, what could go wrong?! During the night they are awoken by a pickup truck, which soon drives off after the troublemaker of the group (Chad Michael Murray, obvs) smashes one its headlights. When they wake up the next morning they discover the fan belt on their car has broken but help appears in the form of a local man named Lester, who offers to drive a couple of the gang into the nearest town, Ambrose. Once there, they discover Ambrose is an eerily quiet settlement and when they find themselves inside a waxwork museum, called ‘House of Wax’, they soon realise that there’s something very wrong with this whole place.


House of Wax is a little bit of an oddity in terms of the timing of its release. By 2005 we were well past the run of glossy post modern teen slashers. Horror audiences were generally after something a bit more grisly (see Wolf Creek), especially after their fling with Asian horror and its American spawn. House of Wax essentially gives us most of the ingredients of the late nineties/early noughties slasher but cranked up the gore and violence. There’s none of the social commentary or meta focus that we’d all got bored of at this point (and to be honest, are getting rather fed up with once again). It is a straight up slasher film that knows exactly what it is and which never really takes itself too seriously, which makes all the bloodshed and violence a bit easier to swallow. It also only has six f-bombs in too. Now you can call us prudish but we’re not big fans of slashers that use that word like it’s going out of fashion. Yes, we’re looking at you Scream VI (80!) and Thanksgiving (95!).


Technically, there’s some real talent behind the screen too. This was Spanish-American director Jaume Collet-Serra’s debut feature film and although the production design department deserve a lot of props for creating a fantastically realised village of horrors, Collet-Serra confidently handles the scares and moments of tension. House of Wax has a genuine atmosphere and a lot of that is down to his vision. We also have Chad and Carey Hayes penning the script. They had a batch of TV movies under their belts but this was their big break. They’ve since gone on to write all three Conjuring films (yay!) and also The Turning (Boo!)


The cast is also pretty cool. Chad Michael Murray is perfect as the rebellious outsider – a character who we initially dislike but who comes through at the end. Jared Padalecki is in there too, as is Paris Hilton and you know what? She isn’t actually that bad. If there was ever a type of film that she was suited to it was always going to be a teen slasher movie. But it’s Elisha Cuthbert who is the standout. She was a promising young actress at this stage of her career and had just already played the girl-next-door type (in The Girl Next Door) and Jack Bauer’s rebellious daughter (24) but here she shows that she’s actually a pretty damn good final girl as well. She’s put through the wringer too. She’s punched, kicked, has her lips glued shut, one of her fingers chopped off. She’s a real trooper.


Practical effects are used as much as possible so we don’t get too much of that dodgy CGI that often popped up in bigger budget genre films of this era. We’re treated to a whole host of wonderful injury detail too. Someone gets beheaded, someone else gets impaled on a stick whilst another character gets a full body waxing and then has half of their face peeled off in a later scene! Lovely!

Is it up there with Scream and the crème-de-la-crème of the sub-genre? No. But I’m not sure there have been many better straight forward slasher films since. Go back and give it a watch!

 

Fun fact: Jared Padalecki is one foot taller than co-star Elisha Cuthbert. To make herself appear taller in scenes where she and Padalecki would be filmed together, Cuthbert taped two-inch blocks of wood to the bottoms of her boots.

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