The Descent (2005) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would definitely be R for gore, violence, disturbing images, and language
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Molly Kayll, MyAnna Buring, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, Alex Reid
Director: Neil Marshall
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Review published July 21, 2005
In 2002, Neil Marshall wrote and directed a cult horror flick called Dog Soldiers, which featured a group of men alone in the Scottish wilderness meeting and eventually fighting for their lives with a frightening menace not thought to be of this earth. Now in 2005, Marshall returns to similar territory, this time with a group of women, and the setting is an expansive, virtually unmapped underground cave system. While Dog Soldiers was all in fun, there's little about The Descent played for humor, although there are a few moments thrown in. This one's an exercise in sheer terror claustrophobic, menacing, and grotesque. Deceptively simple, yet complex at times, Marshall scores all of his points on a primal, visceral level, although he never really reveals all of the reasons behind the nature of things. We know as little as the women do, and feel fear right along with them.
The premise is simple. Sarah (Macdonald, Late Night Shopping) is a car crash survivor, having lost her husband and daughter in the accident. While the physical scars have healed, the emotional ones have long lingered. A year later, Sarah reunites with her friends, females with a thirst for dangerous adventures, to do some spelunking in the caves in the Appalachian mountains. Not wanting to do the usual touristy spots that have no dangers, they decide to choose a hole in the ground to crawl through that few have dared try. Only when a cave-in causes their one known exit to no longer exist do they finally realize that this particular cave may not have had anyone venture back out successfully. All too soon, they realize why, as it appears they aren't alone in the cave.
It doesn't always make sense, and the attempt at a gotcha ending will probably split viewers' reactions, but there's not much denying that The Descent will keep your interest level high throughout, which is more than most horror movies of this ilk can claim. Although this is the kind of movie that works best the less you know, misfortunate souls that saw another British horror flick this year about an underground dweller, Creep, will probably find the story here quite familiar, especially in the look of the creatures. The similarities should end there, as there's no question that The Descent is the superior film, working mainly due to the investment in building up the characters for the first half, while also putting in a cast of solid actresses in each role.
While I realize that I have slammed many other horror films for being nothing but visceral nothings without much to go on except gore, I'm going to sound hypocritical for faulting The Descent for doing the exact opposite. While it is true that there is a good deal of blood, guts, and disturbing imagery throughout, where Marshall tends to weaken his momentum is in not making this a straight-forward shocker. Instead, there are some twists that reduce the terror in favor of character tension, which in a thriller would work fine, but in this film come off as gimmicky and distracting. While Marshall succeeds in atmosphere and direction, he is also prone to genre tricks of the trade, and while this does rise above most horror flicks released in 2005, the clichés (don't you know the group photo will be the final shot of the movie the second you see it?) keep this one from truly soaring to a resounding success.
Ultimately, The Descent does provide enough thrills and scares to overlook the lapses, with eeriness that stays with you long after the credits have finished rolling. Frighteningly realistic at times, with moments that will have you squirming in your seat, and if Marshall could have only had the nerve to break free from staple genre conventions, this could have been one that would please more than horror junkies. Still, the scare factor is high, enough to make the you want to stick your head in the ground from fright -- but then again, once you start watching, that's probably the last place you'd think to put it.
©2005 Vince Leo