Hey folks, Harry here with another review of THE DESCENT... old hat for those of you from the UK, but a coming terror for those of us in the colonies. THE DESCENT is a effin' amazing horror film. For many that attended BNAT - this was the film that really really scared the shit out of them. Some, not so much. This is an incredibly claustrophobic and intense film. Damn good horror flick...
Deceptively simple. If pushed to describe the film in two words. Those would be the two I choose. Horror more so than any other genre, with the possible exception of the western, does not have to work hard to please most fans of the genre. Look at the fan-base behind such franchises such as Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and all but one of the Halloween films. Can anyone argue that these are great films? Good films? Yet there’s no denying their imprint as contemporary film iconography. Horror films only have to get one thing right and that’s to tap into somebody’s adrenaline. Be it through legitimate scares, visceral gore or just simple exploitation, fans of horror can be easily pleased. Which can explain how dreck like Cry-Wolf, Venom, Darkness, They, Darkness Falls, etc… continue to be made and more often than not make money. So, surprise, surprise, when a new horror film actually gives us something new.
Neil Marshall’s sophomore effort does exactly that. And If Marshall doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel, he certainly added some nice and shiny tires. Marshall, if you remember, made his debut with 2002’s Dog Soldiers, a competent low-budget amalgam of Aliens and Predator which finds a group of British soldiers trapped in the Scottish Highlands by strange, immobile werewolf suits. While not necessarily an auspicious debut; the special effects were limited, the acting amateurish, there was just enough spark in the writing and direction to peg this director as somebody to watch. Cut to a few years later. If you were one of those who pegged him as somebody to watch, you can now pat yourselves on the back. This is one of the most confident horror films I have seen in years. Every move by the filmmakers seems to be assured and a capitalization of the medium and genre.
Mere minutes into the film and we have our first superbly executed jaw-dropper. Before this however, we meet our daredevil heroines (yes, heroines, the only appearance of the x gene registers as barely a cameo) fighting through the rapids of some nameless white water deathtrap. An extraordinary sequence in it’s own right, every splash, pound and crack will put you right in the middle of the action. (On a side note, seeing this film in theaters is the obvious preference but if you don’t have 5.1, do what you think you need to do to find somebody that does. The Region 2 release creates a new reference for 5.1 PAL). This sequence lets us know what kind of women we are dealing with. Strong, tough and brutal, always looking for the next challenge. Make no mistake, though, none of these women are what you would classify as ‘butch’. No easy stereotypes here. Tough and feminine. Another nod to Marshall’s seemingly favorite film. Once this sequence ends, the aforementioned shocker occurs. The friends seem to drift after the travesty. Guilt drives Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) to America and sorrow plunges Sarah (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) into a slightly unhinged stupor. A year passes. Juno tries to assemble the group together for a healing trip. The women reconvene in the Appalachian mountains for a tourist-friendly spelunking trip in which all hell breaks loose and a descent is made both figuratively and literally.
I think the success of this film is in the succinct, economic concept of six women and a truly frightening antagonist. A horror film set in a cave is such an obvious conceit, it’s amazing this is the first film to exploit such a unique atmosphere (ignoring last year’s abysmal ‘The Cave’). Aside from a few cheap scare tactics, the tension mounts slowly, palpable in every frame. David Julyan’s deft score (inspired by a few choice Carpenter themes) accentuates every move with an early slight nod to ‘Deliverance’. As the women progress deeper into the cave, claustrophobia takes control. As someone who has done some spelunking, it’s obvious Marshall has done his homework. Even if you have taken one of those guided tours through well-lit tourist traps, you can feel how oppressive those Earth walls can be….And wouldn’t you know it, through the deceit of one of the characters who wanted a more personal bonding experience, they don’t find themselves in a tourist attraction but a new system. A cave unmarked by human presence. Yet something is found that might lead a character to believe otherwise. To delve too deeply into the plot would be to spoil surprises, but the level of suspense generated by the film is truly nail-biting.
The use of lighting in this film is masterly, making expert use of the subtle blue glow of a flare, the flickering red and yellows of a kerosene-soaked torch, the lighting seems to be swallowed up into blackness in all the appropriately strategic spots. Even an ingenuis use for the oft-abused night-vision camera is incorporated here. The two leads, Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Jackson Mendoza, are quite good throughout proving equally adept at the melodrama as the action. When a climatic confrontation happens, don’t be surprised to find yourself conflicted about where your loyalties might lay. One of the two minor flaws (the other is the superfluous use of a few cheap scares) is that some of the supporting gals never quite get the screen time to fully flesh out their characters. An early dialogue scene in a cabin gives us a few names and personality traits but nothing that truly stays with us. An issue that might lessen what we invest in these characters and ultimately their fates. Much has been made by the British press about the final sequence of the film but this is where I digress to the two words that start off this review. One for each of the ways you might choose to look at it.
Minor quibbles aside, if you consider yourself a horror fan, you would do well to seek this film out which sadly also continues the trend of having to look outside of America to find something new in the horror genre and, dare I say it?, scary yet poignant. From Miike and the Pang brothers to Gans and Aja to now Marshall, the least we can hope for is to keep these guys out of Hollywood a little while longer.
The Crawling Eye