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THE DESCENT (2006) review

January 17, 2007

written by: Neil Marshall
produced by: Christian Colson
directed by: Neil Marshall
R for strong violence/gore and language.
1 hr. 39 min.
U.S. release date: August 4, 2006
DVD & BLuray release date: December 26, 2006

I made sure I watched this movie in the middle of an afternoon instead of late at night. I knew going in that it could be the type of movie that would send me to bed with the heebie jeebies.

The latest trend in suspense and horror movies has not excited me in the least. All I see are countless ripoffs, remakes, and regurgitations of classic and mediocre movies that have already been done. If anything, I’ve been quite disappointed and disinterested in the popularity and apparent demand for various films depicting graphic decapitations, dismemberment, and mutilations. Thing is, I do like a good scare. I’m more of a “less-is-more” kinda guy. I don’t need to see it all to be freaked out but I’ll occasionally handle me some gore as long as the plot seems decent enough.  Then I remembered this movie that originally came out in the U.K. in 2005 and here in the states in 2006.

One year after a tragic accident, three adventurous girlfriends meet up again to continue their outdoor thrill-seeking ways in a remote part of the Appalachian Mountains for a caving trip. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), whose life is shattered by the accident, and her friend, Beth (Alex Reid) meet up with their headstrong friend, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) at a cabin outside of their destination. As the unelected leader of the group, Juno has planned out their trip in an effort for them to help Sarah take hold of her life again. At the cabin, they are joined by Juno’s young risk-taking protégé, Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and two sisters, doctor-in-training Sam (MyAnna Buring) and thrill-seeking Rebecca (Saskia Mulder). After spending the night getting to know each other and reminiscing, they drive to the caves the next morning and begin their exploration.




As they spelunk their way deep below the surface of certainty, these six women are faced with facing the unknown below. Disaster strikes when a cave-in blocks their route back to the surface. The girls soon learn that, a misguided effort to bring the group closer together, Juno has brought them to an unexplored cave in the spirit of ”claiming it” for themselves. Therefore, no one knows where they are to come rescue them. The group splinters off and each push on, hoping for another exit. They make their way through suffocating crevices as they burrow their to the next unknown cavern. Then, something starts stalking them, crawling around the crevices, blind eyes alive with hunger, toothy maws desperate for human food. As secrets from Sarah and Juno’s past percolate below the surface, the threat inside the cave grows frightening – and fatal. It will take everything the ladies have to survive this “Descent” into darkness…and death

This film is beautifully photographed, loaded with iconic images, and blessed with a level of believability that barely ever ebbs, it’s is a well made genre effort. Indeed, it is truly the reference-packed horror highlight reel its director Neil Marshall intended it to be. I had never even heard of the guy and then after reading up on him I see how he has loaded the film with horror favorite homages, from “Deliverance” and “Carrie” to “Aliens” and “The Shining”, the British filmmaker, equally famous for his werewolf riff “Dog Soldiers”, has crafted an original take on an old formula. Seasoned fear fans will recognize the old dark house motif rather easily, since the vast majority of the movie takes place in a labyrinthine set of caves as perfectly pitch black as a satanic mass. Add in some unspeakably nasty creatures, an overriding sense of foreboding, and some increasing bad blood between the characters, and you’ve got a recipe for a wonderfully evocative motion picture macabre. Oddly enough, it’s an overall atmosphere and ambiance that didn’t hit off apparently in theaters. It’s obvious Marshall only meant to give an overall sketch of his adventure gals, I’m sure the quick clip dimensions got lost in all the expansive big screens. Similarly, the director also wanted to push the limits of shadows. He purposefully made the movie as dark as possible, hoping this would render the suspense more palatable. Unfortunately, the energy-saving measures of some theaters rendered the scenes unwatchable.




That’s why this works best at home on DVD, especially in a reconfigured print that has much of the arterial spray – and a major subplot – intact. At home, the film finally delivers with the subtlety of certain sequences reborn, and the geyser-like gush of blood filling many of the previous R-rated killings, Marshall’s movie shifts from an exercise in dread to a fully realized gruesome experience. Indeed, the faint of heart should be prepared for the girl’s last stand act in all it’s gruesome-ness.   Although I never saw the U.S cut of this film I can’t imagine a more intense, claustrophobic, full-realized horror film than this. With this unrated cut maintaining the original ending (the “non-happy” UK version) and upping the visual amperage a tad, what was seemingly a single light shining into a big black void experience has been rendered far more frightening with just the slightest hints of approaching horror featured alone the fringes of the action. When you add in the increased character dynamic and the lush look of the landscapes, you get a far more compelling cinematic situation

This movie couldn’t be successful without this cast. Instead of going the American route and casting “hotties” to run around half-nekkid, we’re given actors that fully realize the headstrong and passionate characters written for them. It’s refreshing to see these basically average albeit physically capable women, that could easily be women that you or I could know, take an adventure that tests their friendships, sanity, and survival instincts. I also liked that I felt for these characters but I never really got attached to them. In fact, I started getting suspicious of some of them. To me, that means the actors and the director are succeeding in what they set out to do. 

There is real artistry in what Marshall has managed here and I’m lad my viewing was alone at home. Viewed as an inventive psychological thriller, an old dark house spook show, or a post-modern meditation on man vs. nature and the unnatural, “The Descent” deserves the attention of any serious scare fan. While far from a masterpiece, it definitely represents an ingenious and distinctive deviation from your standard horror film.




RATING: ***1/2


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