As someone who produces a blog post every day, I can sympathize with the difficulty of finding new material to write about. But it seems that fringe science writer Nick Redfern’s writer’s block is getting the better of him. His recent articles at Mysterious Universe have become increasingly pointless exercises in rehashing and recycling. But yesterday’s article on horror movies and Bigfoot has to be one of Redfern’s most ridiculous pieces yet. And to top it off, it made me feel old not long before my upcoming birthday. The Descent (2005), a film about a group of young women attacked by humanoid creatures while spelunking, is now an old movie from another time? Where do the decades go?
Regular readers will remember that the failure to find Bigfoot anywhere in the United States has led to three speculative hypotheses about where the imaginary ape might be hiding: (a) aboard a flying saucer, (b) in a parallel universe that intersects with ours only in backwoods locales, and (c) in a continent-wide network of underground caverns that no one can prove exist.
Redfern’s opening, overwritten with unnecessary redundancy, sets the stage for the silliness that follows:
Given the fact there are suspicions that Bigfoot’s uncanny ability to elude us on almost every occasion is due to it being a creature which may spend most of its time living in caverns and caves, The Descent is a movie that Bigfoot enthusiasts should watch and think about carefully. There may be more truth in it than anyone might guess.
Anyone except Nick Redfern, who seems to think, like Helena Blavatsky before him, that fiction is hiding truths from the Bigfoot-Nephilim-space alien dimension.
I want to skip ahead to the point, but I can’t let this disaster of a sentence from his plot summary pass by unnoted: “Unknown to the rest of the girls, Juno has decided to have them investigate a completely unknown cave system that – literally – no-one knows about.” As someone who makes plenty of writing errors churning out a daily blog, I can appreciate that not every sentence published online will be immortal artistry, but the redundancy and illogic of the sentence is breathtaking. He says “unknown” in three different ways, and doesn’t notice that if the caves are known to Juno, then they can’t be “literally” unknown to anyone!
The majority of Redfern’s piece is a plot summary of The Descent, which fills space while contributing nothing to his allegation that the movie has relevance to Bigfoot hunting. On the other hand, his summary did manage to make me feel old and also annoy me in my capacity as a horror critic: “Unlike so many of today’s watered down horror movies – that feel the need to provide some sense of hope for the characters and a degree of a happy ending – The Descent does nothing of the sort.” Today’s movies? Was 2005 so long ago now that we’ve passed into a whole new era? My book The Cult of Alien Gods was released that year.
But who would argue that “today’s” horror movies are watered down by hope? If anything, films since 2000 have been darker, more nihilistic, and more violent than practically anything that came before them. The Decent was part of a wave of extremely violent and very dark films like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) that asked viewers to find enjoyment in, essentially, rooting for the characters to suffer and die, earning them the moniker “torture porn.” It’s true that the torture porn wave burned itself out on its own excess, but it would be difficult to argue that the much reduced horror genre that followed the collapse of torture porn has entirely moved into new and more hopeful territory. It’s important to remember that even torture porn movies left some characters alive, while later films, like Drag Me to Hell (2009), had no trouble with dark endings.
The line between hopeful and hopeless is not clear-cut, and The Descent isn’t a stable text that allows us to draw that line clearly. The U.S. theatrical version of the film features an ending in which one of the characters seems to escape her fate, while the international version and the DVD release contain a darker, hopeless ending. According to Entertainment Weekly in 2006, American audiences couldn’t handle the “über-hopeless” ending of the international cut. Lionsgate executive Tim Palen said “It’s a visceral ride, and by the time you get to the ending you’re drained. [Director Neil] Marshall had a number of endings in mind when he shot the film, so he was open [to making a switch].” Both versions of the story exist simultaneously, with the U.S. broadcast version continuing to air on TV with an ending in which one character escapes.
These facts should undercut Redfern’s argument that 2005 was a uniquely pure moment for nihilistic horror.
He then goes on to compare the cannibal creatures that consume the characters of The Descent to the bloodthirsty underground Morlocks of H. G. Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine. (He apparently knows the story only from the movies since he describes it as including nuclear war.) Yet because Redfern is a fringe writer and a shallow thinker, he fails to recognize the broader motif that these creatures represented, and continued to represent in horror fiction like H. P. Lovecraft’s 1922 serial “The Lurking Fear” (also about cannibals in caves), and in more popular (if less horrific) form in The Mole People (1956). These stories have degenerate humans or humanoids living below ground because they represent atavism, presenting in fictional form the fear of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Wells made this more or less explicit in arguing that both the terrifying Morlocks and their more graceful aboveground counterparts, the Eloi, evolved from humanity. Lovecraft was more concerned about the risk of reversion, the failure of a sort of teleological view of progress. Here’s how he described his underground cannibals:
The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life.
The Descent is not, perhaps, as invested in making a deep point about evolution or regression but nonetheless the film’s creatures capture the same atavistic feeling as Lovecraft. In 2005, director Neil Marshall said of his monsters in The Northern Echo that they were intended to be cavemen who failed to evolve into modern humans. “I wanted to have this very feral, very primal species living underground, but I wanted to make them human. I didn’t want to make them aliens because humans are the scariest things.” Despite this, Redfern prefers to read the monsters as analogous to Bigfoot, accidentally stumbling upon a truth: that Bigfoot stories are really stories about human beings and their relationship to the wild and untamed natural world they try and often fail to transcend. Redfern fails to notice this even though he rants about how “we are not the superior beings we arrogantly assume ourselves to be.”
Redfern concludes by hoping that humans will someday find Bigfoot’s network of underground caverns and tunnels. Surely, of all the fringe hypotheses, that one ought to be easy enough to test. Tunnels don’t move and can’t vanish when you’re not looking at them. So where are they? Redfern doesn’t know and, to judge by this movie review masquerading as insight into Bigfoot, doesn’t care.
Redfern’s article is an embarrassment by any standard: a movie review ten years too late married to unexamined fringe speculation without connecting analysis or any real attempt to deal with the material beyond the facile equation of “looks like, therefore is.” Actually, not even that. With the conditional tense Redfern employs we should instead call it “looks like, therefore might be.”
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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