Over the past five years, Neil Marshall's The Descent has quickly become one of the most misspelled horror titles on internet message boards. That's a shame, because the film's much more than Decent. (Yeah, I know, that title card doesn't do it justice either, but if you enlarge it you can make out the whole title that the light is sweeping across.)
Sandwiched between the two ultra-macho flicks (Dog Soldiers and Doomsday) Marshall has made, The Descent is a girl's-night-out of terror in which a group of adventure-seeking outdoorswomen head into a dark and ominous series of caves, hoping to retreat from their problems, which includes the fact that one of the women, Sarah (Shauna McDonald), lost her husband and daughter in an accident a year earlier during another adventure. Leading the charge is the competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and her "protegee" Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), who've secretly tricked Sarah and their friends into an unexplored series of caverns that they want to "discover" and name, of course.(Curiosity kills me here...How exactly does one choose a name for a series of caverns? Are there rules for it? If you had to name a series of caverns, what would you go with? Let me know in the comments, please! BTW, my choice is totally "The Overlook Caverns", because it's ironic and Shining-y.)
(On an unrelated note, if you're tired of this review right now, head over to Z for Zombies and check out Zach S.'s post on our latest Midnight Warriors topic, in which he lauds Clive Barker's Nightbreed. Then come back, please. So ends this commercial break.)
Meanwhile, things slowly get difficult for the group after a cave-in leaves them struggling to find their way back to daylight. And Sarah, still having trouble with some memories of her lost daughter, slowly becomes sure that the group is not alone. She's right, and the movie takes off down the survive-at-any-cost road from there.It's clear throughout the film that Marshall adores John Carpenter's 1982 classic The Thing, as The Descent even borrows from that film's musical score at some of its most tense moments. Like Carpenter did then, Marshall takes a lot of time to set up a network of realistic characters to face the terrors he has planned out. In both films the characters aren't extremely interesting - at least compared to what we're used to from genre cinema, where everyone has a back-story and a specialty" - which allows uncertainty to run wild in the viewer's mind. Any of these women are at risk at any moment in the film, and the fact that we have trouble identifying with each of them at times just adds to our concern that they might be the next to face a terrible fate.
It is also extremely significant that all the characters who enter the cave are women. When Carpenter made The Thing with an all-male cast, it was expected that the group would act off of their need to present a "strong" male image to each other. By utilizing women and allowing them to be strong-willed and independent - traits generally reserved for "survivor girls" in horror films - Marshall fights against the stream. This again builds tension by making us believe that any of these characters are their own entity within the film, and not just a stereotype that's about to become a statistic on some gorehound's death-toll list.
When the fundamental dose of claustrophobia that comes with the setting syncs up with the tension these realistic characters bring to the plot, The Descent is capable of anything. Watching the film for my second time this evening, I found myself shocked more than once, and even had a good jump at one excellent reveal. And when the ending rolls around (By the way, if you saw this in an American theater or on TV and found the ending lacking, you NEED to check the Unrated version out...the ending that was originally intended exists only through it), The Descent will hopefully leave you feeling the same slew of emotions I received - primarily an excitement about seeing a rare film that really does pack a psychological and emotional punch.
Though I may find myself gravitating toward Marshall's two popcorn films more often (which isn't a knock, Dog Soldiers and Doomsday are two entirely different kinds of beasts) than this one, The Descent is a reminder of exactly how a filmmaker can simplify terror by creating simple human characters and placing them in a dark place with a threat. In this case the result is one of the most intense chillers in recent memory; which doubles as the rare horror film that doesn't treat women like they belong in a kitchen. Bravo, Mr. Marshall.
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