After sitting through such overhyped horror tripe as High Tension, Wolf Creek, and Hostel, it's a nice change of pace that The Descent, an import film from Britain, actually manages to somewhat live up to its hype and the acclaim that its US release has been met with. Mind you, the key word here is "somewhat". While The Descent is definitely a notch above most of the horror films the hit the big screen, it's still lacking in a few crucial areas that prevent it from reaching the heights it strives for. Claustrophobic, eerie, and a dream film for gorehounds everywhere, The Descent does not let go until it reaches a terrible ending that was apparently changed from the original for the US release. I don't know who at Lions Gate studio thought it'd be a smart idea to give us the ending we got, but all I can say is we got the short end of the stick.
Adventurous thrill seeker Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has been struggling to move on ever since her husband and daughter were killed in a car accident one year ago. Her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) thinks she's found the perfect adventure to get Sarah back to normal - a day trip to a mountain cavern located somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. Sarah agrees to the outing, and teams up with Juno, as well as a small group of acquaintances including Beth (Alex Reid), stepsisters Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder and MyAnna Buring), and video photographer Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Unknown to any of the girls, Juno has led them to a different cave than they were told they were going to, one that has yet to be named or fully explored. When the tunnel leading to where the girls entered from caves in, they become trapped in a strange system of underground caves that seem to stretch on for miles. With fear and paranoia quickly overcoming the girls, they must move forward and hope to find an alternate exit to the surface. Little do they realize that the animal bones that litter the ground in certain areas of the cave hint at a race of creatures who are watching them from the shadows.
Even though the premise may be somewhat similar to last year's embarrassing horror effort, The Cave, The Descent is truly in a class far above that cinematic atrocity. Whereas the former was messy and downright laughable straight to video junk that somehow found its way to getting a theatrical release, The Descent is genuinely unnerving, and that's well before the monsters start to show up during the one hour mark. A lot of this has to do with how writer-director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) takes a more psychological approach to the material. More so than the flesh-eating mutants that are lurking in the shadows, it is the girls' own fear of their situation and each other that chills us. As the situation worsens, the girls start to distrust one another, especially when they learn that Juno has misled them, and that they are not where she told them they were. The tight spaces and darkness of their surroundings eventually starts messing with their minds, especially Sarah, who is haunted by visions of her young daughter amongst other things. It is this eerie human aspect that makes The Descent work most of the time. This is the rare horror film that actually emphasizes the human element of the story, and uses it to build the terror. The characters are not simply walking bags of meat designed specifically to die in gory ways. Sure, some of them do eventually fulfill that purpose, but before that, these are real characters that have actual relationships and personal fears. This aspect is aided by some strong performances by a cast of women who I have not seen in previous films, but would not mind seeing again, as they all do a good job of playing off of each other, and creating their own individual characters.
It is during the second act when the girls start getting stalked by vicious mutant cannibals that lurk in the shadows that the terror aspect starts to wind down a little bit, oddly enough when it is supposed to be cranking up. These "Crawlers" (as the end credits refer to them as) are blind killers that have evolved sense of hearing that allow them to hunt their prey, and look kind of like a cross between silent movie villain Nosferatu and Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They sneak about, croaking like bullfrogs, and pouncing upon anything that happens to be nearby that makes a sound. While the movie still holds onto the psychological aspect that made the first half work so well, it also runs the danger of becoming very repetitive. There's only so much we can see creatures suddenly popping out of the darkness to rip someone's throat out before we kind of start to feel as if we've seen it all before. It becomes a nearly endless string of monster attacks as the girls are forced to fight back if they want to survive. It never quite hurts the film, but it also starts to quickly become a game. We start trying to guess when the little monsters are gonna pop out, and most of the time, we are right, as there is no jump scare that Neil Marshall doesn't seem to try. When he's not trying to startle us with sudden attacks, he falls back on other cheaper methods such as having a swarm of bats suddenly come flying out of a dark tunnel, their sound amplified on the soundtrack in order to make the audience jump more. Still, even when the movie becomes a string of sequences for the special effects make up artists to earn their paycheck, I was having fun. Then, along came the ending, which is not only head-scratchingly confusing, but it leaves a lot left unexplained. I'm told that the original ending featured in the import version explains a lot more, so I guess I'll just have to wait until the DVD comes out to find out just what the heck that birthday cake had to do with anything in the movie.
When it comes to films set in dark settings, I generally become nervous. Not out of fear mind you, but because few filmmakers know how to shoot in darkness without making the film itself look muddled and dull. Fortunately, The Descent runs into no such problems here. The images are sharp and clear, and use the dark settings to their advantage thanks to the wonderful cinematography by Sam McCurdy. It helps transport us into the world of the story, so that we feel like we are experiencing many of the same feelings and emotions as the girls are. The production design has a tight and eerily plausible feel to it, helping to bring the feel of claustrophobia to life. There are also some extremely memorable sequences, such as the first time Sarah lays eyes on one of the Crawlers, or a later scene where two of the girls must lay lifelessly while one of the creatures draws near, hoping its hearing does not detect their presence. It almost makes me wish we saw less of the creatures, as when the movie becomes a stalking movie with Crawlers seemingly leaping out of the woodwork at the characters, it definitely loses a bit of the mystery and horror of the earlier scenes when we catch fleeting glimpses of something in the shadows, or some unidentified form gnawing on a dead carcass.
While it's not a complete home run, The Descent at least manages to stay afloat. Anyone looking for a fun horror movie that has touches of humor to help lighten the mood should look elsewhere, however. This is a deadly serious and sometimes depressing nightmare that does not let up. Then again, after sitting through such laughable fare as See No Evil and When a Stranger Calls, it really is refreshing to see a horror movie that centers on interesting adult characters, instead of mindless sex-driven teenagers. I definitely think Neil Marshall has the talent to create great horror, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. The Descent definitely proves that there's still more to the horror genre than catering to 14-year-old girls who want to scream with their friends. Let's hope there's even stronger efforts on the way.
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