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August 9-15, 2006

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Cult Leader

Inbred Circus: Movie mutants love country livin'!

By Steve Palopoli

BEING A spelunker myself, I had planned to write this week about the recent spate of cave movies—last year's The Cave and Within (an Australian film which is out on DVD in the United States this month as The Cavern), and of course The Descent. Then I realized no one in their right mind wants to read a bunch of technical blah-blah about the impossibility of these characters staying even one-one-thousandth as clean as they do in these movies or the fact that they could all double for educational films on how to do absolutely every single thing wrong in the course of a caving expedition. That, of course, has never stopped me before. But lucky for you, only The Descent turns out to be worth talking about at all (warning: minor spoilers ahead).

Now, I can understand the tendency to put The Descent in the camp of Alien offspring, and certainly that influence is there. But I had a different take: to me this fairly effective little British flick falls squarely in the tradition of those (usually American) movies that pit city folk against backwoods country freaks. Lookie how it fits the pattern: The citified main characters in this kind of movie are almost always lost in some isolated place far outside of their urban comfort zone (check), arrogant (check) and unprepared to take on the primitives (check), who are inbred (check) and mindless (check) but kick a lot of ass (check). The latte-swilling losers then have to shed their sissy skin and revert to their primitive instincts in order to live (check)—and there are always casualties (check).

None of this hit me until The Descent's totally-random-but-still-pretty-cool shock ending, which reminded of a very similar punch line in the sick little horror cheapie Mother's Day (1980). Then I started thinking about how that movie, like The Descent, featured an all-woman lineup facing off in the wilderness against vicious freaks who have purposefully cut themselves off from civilization. They are both, in their own way, movies about battling mutants. As you watch movies like this, it's kind of fun to note the stereotypes in play about people who live in rural areas. If you live in the city, it's even more fun to watch them and think about what a bunch of crazy-ass mutants your relatives who live in the country are. If you live in the country yourself, maybe it's fun to watch them and say, "Hey, look, it's our house!" I kid the country folk.

By the way, when I talk about the ending of The Descent, I'm talking about the American ending, which cuts off the final minute or so from the British version. The change was made by director Neil Marshall himself, not the studio, so don't tell me what a sellout it is. I think it's a better ending for this kind of movie myself, but if you want to compare, go to to see how it played originally.

Anyway, I do love mutant movies. But I'll tell you one thing: Today's backwoods mutants are not having the kind of fun they used to have. The groundbreaking film of this kind was Deliverance (1972), which I am constantly amazed never gets credit for how much of an influence it was on the truly iconic redneck-mutant movie that would come two years later, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yes, one had action-adventure with macho guys in the mountains, and the other was straight-up grindhouse with hippies deep in the heart of Texas, but come on now, it's not that much of a leap.

The point is that in the '70s these inbred freaks really enjoyed making life hell for city snobs. Straight through Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and on into the '80s, they threw themselves into it with no attempt to hide their glee. For instance, in Tobe Hooper's wacky Chain Saw follow-up, Eaten Alive (1977), crazed redneck Neville Brand doesn't just throw his motel guests to the crocodiles because he has to—he loves it! It's kind of a passion, really.

Today's mutants, though, I don't know. With its story of monstrously inbred cannibals who attack road-tripping young 'uns in the West Virginia mountains, I thought Wrong Turn (2003) was an interesting tribute to '70s city/country horror. But the freaks in that movie are so messed up they seem to be acting more or less on instinct. And the creatures in The Descent, they're barely even worthy of the diabolical implications that the term "inbred" brings to mind. They'll kill ya, for sure, but their aggression is biological rather than sadistic. I mean, you feel kind of sorry for these modern mutants. I wouldn't know whether to hit one in the head with a pickax or say, "Dude, people are people, so why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully?"

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your pick for best mutant movie here.

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