'The Descent': Bloody Hell, By Kurt Loder

The U.K. horror sensation finally arrives, and it's a ripping yarn for real.

Also: Will Ferrell's Tired 'Talladega Nights' and Toni Collette's creepy 'Night Listener.'

The English writer and director Neil Marshall has a rousing enthusiasm for the hardcore horror flick. He embraces both its conventions and its unexplored possibilities, and pushing things too far is his favorite kind of genre exercise. "The Descent," his second feature (the first was a werewolf movie called "Dog Soldiers"), was a flesh-rending sensation when it was released in the U.K. last year, and even though it's now opening here with a slightly tweaked ending (the original was felt to be too much of a downer), it's still pretty sensational.

The movie opens on three women coursing down a river in a white-water raft. A man and a little girl watch them from the bank. This fellow is the only significant male character in the movie, and he doesn't stick around (a pun I hope you'll pardon in retrospect) for very long.

A year later, these three women join three others — they're all old friends — for a cave-exploring vacation in the Appalachian Mountains. They're a mixed bunch: a medical student, a pro athlete, a spikey-haired sports punk. One's a cheery wisecracker, another has been touched by tragedy. Their self-appointed leader, an overbearing jock named Juno (Natalie Mendoza), has the whole trip planned out. She's found a perfect cave system and an illustrated guide to its intricate depths. Unfortunately (most unfortunately, as it turns out), that's not the cave she actually takes them to; and only after they've rappelled down into its dark maw and nearly been crushed to death by falling rocks that block off their return path does she reveal that this is a cave that's never been explored before.

Or has it? Pullying themselves across a deep chasm on thick cables, they discover a rock-climbing piton of a kind used a hundred years ago. Pressing on, they come to an area where the rock floor is covered with human bones. Then they begin to suspect they're not alone. Then — all of a sudden, in a terrifying rush — they know they're not alone.

Marshall orchestrates the emotional tides that flow through the group with unusual care — they bicker, they break down, they bounce back — and this human detail, complicated by elements of betrayal, makes the horror growing all around them seem all the more horrible.

What the women are up against is a tribe of slimy blind albino creatures (think Orcs) bent on ripping them apart, lapping up their blood, and no doubt sucking the marrow from their bones, too — all in the most graphic ways the inventive director can devise. Marshall isn't a man to resist the sudden reveals that are a staple of the horror genre — the camera following a woman as she walks tremulously along a stone passageway and then suddenly bringing into focus a drooling monster in the foreground, watching her. He's all in favor of the traditional fake scares, too — an eruption of startled birds, an explosion of CGI bats. And the hardcore stuff — the axe-cracked skulls, the gouged-out eyes, the shattered bones ripping up through bloody flesh — well, he's all about that.

"The Descent" reportedly cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million to make. This is astonishing. The movie looks great, especially considering the difficulty involved in maintaining its central illusion — that all the light in the scenes is coming from flares, flashlights, torches, glowsticks or natural subterranean phosphorescence. The camerawork, by Sam McCurdy, is remarkably resourceful (the chasm-crossing sequence is a study in distressing perspectives), and the editing leaps past all potential lulls and whips us along to the next hideous thrill. It's a virtuoso piece of filmmaking.

It does, of course, stumble upon the same problem that all monster movies do: The more we see of the monsters, the more closely we're able to contemplate the presence of actors beneath their grisly prosthetics. This problem may be insurmountable, so there's not much point in complaining about it. I do have a serious reservation about the new ending, though: The final shot makes no sense whatsoever — it belongs in a ghost story. Was the original ending better? Worse? Easy enough to find out: the Euro version of the film is available on DVD for about 40 bucks. Go for it, if you want. If not, though, definitely go for this.

"Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby": Running on Empty

This loud, dumb, funny-impaired comedy has a message for NASCAR racing fans, and possibly for Red State residents more generally. The message is: You're idiots. This was also the message of "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," Will Ferrell's last collaboration with his old "Saturday Night Live" associate, writer-turned-director Adam McKay. But in "Anchorman," the message was directed at a class of people — self-important local-TV personalities — whom we know actually to be idiots. "Talladega Nights" takes aim at something more amorphous, a "redneck" cultural stereotype that now feels dated. The film's satirical sights aren't set a whole lot higher than the level of an old "Dukes of Hazzard" episode.

Ferrell is Ricky Bobby, a stock-car star with the IQ of a lug wrench, making him just a bit brighter than his best friend, a fellow driver and brother moron named Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly, slumming and loving it, apparently). Ricky has grown rich on endorsements (the whole movie is a fiesta of corporate product placement). He has a hot blonde wife (Leslie Bibb) who chews gum at the dinner table, and he's the proud father of two snotty kids, one named Walker, the other (what else?) Texas Ranger.

When a racetrack crackup leaves Ricky unhurt but unhinged (he's convinced that he's on fire and spends many mirthless moments leaping about the field in his Jockey shorts), his career tanks, and he's reduced to delivering pizzas for a living. Meanwhile, Cal takes up with Ricky's wife, and soon marries her. (Their wedding, we're told, featured a Styx cover band and a "nacho fountain" — this would've been something to see.) Worst of all, Ricky's place at the top of the NASCAR heap is taken over by a gay French Formula One racing champion named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen — England's Ali G. — here channeling the cheek-sucking delivery of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil to surprisingly little humorous effect).

As was the case with "Anchorman," this skeletal story has been draped with dialogue that appears in large part of have been improvised. Improvisation is often thought to be a guarantee of fresh, inspired comedy, but obviously this can't always be the case. Here, the misfires are, as usual, rounded up into a "blooper" reel at the end of the movie, with the actors cracking themselves up in tedious, time-honored fashion. But these blown gags don't seem a lot less funny than some of the bits that actually made it into the film. There's a strained barroom squabble about the virtues of pancakes versus crepes, for example, that runs out of comedic steam well before it reaches its mild payoff. And a bizarre Reilly monologue about posing for "Playgirl" magazine that emerges out of nowhere and returns there without offering any justification for its presence. Jean Girard, whose gay-guy attributes reduce the locals to speechless gawking (what a buncha hicks), is pictured at the wheel of his speeding car sipping espresso at one point (he has to pour it over the chin-guard of his helmet straight onto his face), and at another point reading a book by Camus. One-liners fizzle left and right. When a character is told "there's no smoking in here," he replies, "It's OK, I'm a volunteer fireman."

The movie's execution is as crude as its concept. The picture was shot by Oliver Wood, probably best-known for his skilful work on "The Bourne Identity" and "The Bourne Supremacy." But "Talladega Nights" unfolds in a sun-blasted glare, and with its casual staging and awkwardly-blocked shots, it might almost be a behind-the-scenes NASCAR documentary. (At the other extreme, some of its indoor scenes seem to be taking place on a dimly-lit back porch.)

Will Ferrell is a funny guy — is there anyone who does broad, beady-eyed, loveable-knucklehead comedy better? But he shines brightest in the company of comedic equals like Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and Seth Rogen, who provided him such solid support in "Anchorman." As the one true zany in "Talladega Nights," he's left holding his shtick, and it seems to be turning into a burden.

"The Night Listener": Little Boy Lost

This is not a horror movie by any stretch of the concept. But thanks to a disturbing performance by Toni Collette, it's a creepy and unsettling picture, and it may leave you looking for someplace warm and well-lit to think it over in after you've seen it.

"The Night Listener" is based on Armisted Maupin's 2000 novel of the same name, which appears in turn to have been based on the author's experience in connection with a 1993 book called "A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story." This was a purported autobiography (for which Maupin wrote a blurb) written by a teenage boy named Anthony Godby Johnson, who claimed that he'd been beaten by his parents and repeatedly raped by their pedophile friends, and had then discovered, at the age of 11, that he had contracted AIDS. Upon investigation, however, it turned out that the only person who could testify to actually ever having seen Anthony Johnson was the woman who claimed to be his adoptive mother — and for various shifty reasons, she refused to bring him forth.

The outline of this gruesome hoax is apparent in the film that's been made from Maupin's book. Here, Anthony Johnson is a 14-year-old boy called Pete Logand (Rory Culkin), and his memoir is about to be brought out by a New York publishing house. A copy of it finds its way to Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a writer who has a weekly one-hour public-radio show on which he tells stories that are drawn from his life. Gabriel receives a call from Pete, who lives in Milwaukee, and they begin an ongoing, long-distance conversation that helps take Gabriel's mind off a recent breakup with his much younger boyfriend, Jess (Bobby Cannavale).

Gabriel also starts getting calls from Donna Logand (Collette), the woman who says she adopted Pete, and who now functions as his literary agent, too. One day, when Jess comes over to retrieve some belongings from Gabriel's apartment, Gabriel plays him a pair of voicemail messages that Pete and Donna have left on his answering machine. Jess is immediately struck by how similar their two voices sound. Gabriel is appalled that he would suggest any sort of deception. But he grows increasingly suspicious, and finally he flies out to Milwaukee to find out what's going on. That this never becomes entirely clear is part of what's so unsettling about the movie.

"The Night Listener" packs an extraordinary amount of emotional material and physical detail into its tight, 85-minute running time. The director, Patrick Stettner, deals with the central terror of Pete's life — his extended sexual abuse, which he says was photographed for the delectation of Internet pedophiles — in a quick montage that, while not in any way graphic, manages to convey an abject monstrousness that may haunt your thoughts long after the lights go up. The movie roils with troubling elements. Pete is never home when Gabriel comes to visit him in Milwaukee — he's always "in the hospital," where "he may not last the night," according to Donna. But we do see his room, and in one shot there's a heavy chain attached to the radiator near his bed. The image lasts only a moment, and it's not alluded to again — it just sits there in our uneasy imagination.

Nothing in the movie, however, is more troubling than Toni Collette's Donna. That she turns out to be blind comes as a surprise at first — but that passes, as we slowly realize that she's quite likely mad as well, swerving from sweet and wheedling to cold and inscrutably menacing, sometimes within the span of just a few sentences. Her final scenes, at the end of the film, when a new realm of perversity has opened up before us, are chilling.

"The Night Listener" might qualify as a minor classic were it not for the central miscasting of Robin Williams in the lead role of Gabriel Noone. He may not be completely wrong for the role of a bookish introvert, but he's wrong for the movie. He gives the kind of bearded-Robin-Williams performance that seems to be always perched on the verge of a grimace or a whimper, as if someone had just shot his puppy and he knew he was incapable of actually doing anything about it. Toni Collette's Donna would know exactly what to do. She may already have done it. We'll never really know.

— Kurt Loder

See everything we've got on "The Descent," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" and "The Night Listener".

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