An elderly widow must overcome her fear of falling and descend the stairs of her beach-front property in order to find what her late husband has left for her, buried in the sand beneath. We take a look at writer-director Eric Bair’s 15-minute short film ‘Descensus Ad Mortem’.
‘Descensus Ad Mortem’ or Descent To Death is an interesting character study about one person’s battle with herself. Carol Hannan plays Delia a recently widowed pensioner who suffers from a complicated condition known as bathmophobia.
Bathmophobia is a fear of slopes and stairs and it isn’t just a fear of what could happen by going downstairs; if you are a sufferer you could also trigger your fear by simply negotiating or even just contemplating a particularly scary-looking staircase.
We open in the bedroom of our protagonist Delia as she is about to go to bed, still not able to come to terms with the death of her partner she keeps the urn of his ashes in her room, chats to it and even takes it to bed with her. Delia is so paralysed by her fear that she even refuses to go downstairs to attend her husband’s wake. As she turns out the light we are greeted by the shadow of the grim reaper and the tone remains pretty ominous from this moment on, as the shadow of death overlooks Delia for the rest of the short. While the colour palette of blues, greys, and blacks adds to the overall feeling of mourning and isolation.
The story of Descensus Ad Mortem is pretty straightforward, Delia fights her fears and slowly works up the courage to descend the stairs to reach her ultimate goal. We have seen this trope many times before, in many films, but amongst the clichéd storyline, there are a couple of things worth mentioning. There is a nice tracking shot that is reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s famous Evil dead camera swoops, which helps to highlight just how steep the stairs must feel to a sufferer of Bathmophobia. While the colour palette of blues and greys, adds to the overall feeling of mourning and isolation, there is also a sweet flashback scene between man and wife where we get to see Delia and Harold laugh and joke together. Unfortunately, this is somewhat spoiled by the poor sound mix and due to the natural beach sounds it becomes difficult to hear at times. There is also a nice building of tension during the staircase descending scenes. The stakes never seem very high but Bair manages to sell the jeopardy of what could be a very mundane incident, with clever use of sound effects and editing. Also, the visitations by the grim reapers shadow manage to cause the odd startle.
However, the problem is that there is a feeling of ‘TV movie’ that permeates throughout Descensus Ad Morten and some of the performances seem out of sync which stops it being truly effective. While there is very little dialogue or interaction Hannan’s performance as Delia is fine overall but she is a little bit stilted in her delivery at times whereas James E Clarke as Harold pitches his performance a little too big in the scene they share together. That said Hannan does manage to elicit the sympathy of the audience which is very important especially in the staircase scenes. Because the stakes aren’t too high we need to sympathise and support Delia on her quest downstairs and by the final descent we are all certainly cheering her on.
I was left a little empty by the finale though as I was hoping for something far more poignant and although I completely understand what Bair was doing I just think the film as a whole would have benefited from something a little more powerful.
Descensus Ad Mortem is currently doing well on the festival circuit and I’m sure it will garner more recognition along the way as it is a nice film that overall I enjoyed. With a few more tweaks it would have garnered another star, but as it stands Descensus Ad Mortem gets 3 out 5.