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The Descent

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The Descent (2005, U.S. 2006)

After losing her husband and young daughter in a horrific and grisly automobile accident, a young woman named Sarah attempts to climb out of the pit of despair she has been languishing in for over a year, by joining a group of her close female friends on one of their annual adventure-seeking expeditions. Sarah’s friend Juno, the unofficial leader of the sexy sextet, has arranged for the group to go spelunking in a remote cave hidden deep in the Appalachians.

Staying the night in some rented cabins, the group of women set off the following day for their distant destination - which Juno assures them will be both exhilarating and challenging. Unbeknownst to the others, Juno, in an attempt to up the adventure quotient, is leading them into an unmapped and unnamed cave system. Initially, this seems of no major consequence for a group whose motto is, “If there’s no risk, what’s the point?” However, the danger-laden cave will indeed test the mettle of these risk-takers, and moreover, something with a taste for human flesh, alive and lurking in the cave’s dank darkness, might very well claim their lives.

Having already been released throughout Europe to great acclaim, The Descent is a horror film that fully deserves its lauded status, and unquestionably establishes writer/director Neil Marshall as one of horror cinema’s best and most promising new directors. At the screening I attended, the audience collectively, and repeatedly, jumped and gasped throughout the film - especially throughout The Descent’s unnerving last half. Without a doubt, the Descent is an uncompromisingly tense, heart-bursting exercise in horror filmmaking that should also make a big splash on this side of the pond.

In addition to the film’s visceral visual assault, the script (written by Marshall over a two year period and numbering over ten drafts) is a compact but wholly satisfying horror yarn with some decently written characters that pull you into the story and their terrifying plight. At times six characters seems perhaps two too many, yet, overall the script fleshes the main characters out pretty well, giving them story arcs which eventually payoff. It’s also worth mentioning that the story takes its time setting itself up - in fact, the “horror" dimension of The Descent doesn’t bare its blood-soaked fangs until nearly forty minutes into the film. Nevertheless, The Descent is rarely boring or tedious and makes good use of its “slow” build, escalating tension as it creeps its way towards the memorably fright-filled, gore-strewn second half.

All of the actresses turn in some nice, truly physically demanding performances. The film’s protagonist, Sarah, played by Shauna Macdonald, goes through the biggest transformation over the course of the film - at one point recalling a blood-spattered Sissy Spacek in Carrie, and the next, proving to be more of a Ripleyesque badass, a la Sigourney Weaver. The character Juno, played by Natalie Mendoza, is the closest thing to a “human” antagonist in The Descent, as she is both deceptive and self-serving, and has an agenda that is ambiguous at best. Lastly, another standout is Nora-Jane Noone who plays Holly, a headstrong and humorous extreme sportswoman.

The Descent is also a prime example of a horror film that works wonders despite its modest budget. Primarily the movie was shot at Pinewood studios in England using six mock-up caves, miniatures and some matte paintings. If I hadn’t read this, however, I would be none the wiser because the caves certainly look like the real deal. It’s of additional interest to note the way in which director Neil Marshall and his DP Sam McCurdy (who also shot Marshall’s debut, Dog Soldiers) work within the parameters of having a film set in a cave. The Descent is lit to look as though only natural light sources are being used - flashlights, flares, and glow sticks - which really adds to the reality of the cave setting, and accentuates the claustrophobic feel that is prevalent throughout many parts of the movie. One clever addition in this regard, was giving the group a camcorder with a night vision function, which is used to maximum fright effect at one point when Sarah is separated and lost in the cave’s all-encompassing darkness.

Another of The Descent’s exceptional elements are the creatures dwelling in the cave, which the director has dubbed "The Crawlers." They are truly frightening creatures, emerging from the darkness unexpectedly, hanging from the walls and ceilings of the cave, only to viciously pounce and shred their victims into rags of red pulp and naked bone. The makeup effects are fantastic, and go a long way toward proving that traditional effects, if used properly, are often more compelling and eclipse their CGI counterparts. The sound design that accompanies the Crawlers is also sure to breed goose bumps, especially the chilling, high-pitched shriek that the creatures emit prior to attack. In total, a lot of good scary stuff that should have most audience members logging in some substantial ass-on-edge-of-seat time.

One major complaint I have with The Descent however, is its ending. Actually, it’s with the U.S. alternate ending. Two different conclusions were shot for the film, and for some reason Neil Marshall chose to use the alternate ending, not used in the European release, for the film’s release in the United States. Suffice it to say, it’s basically a disappointing, tacked on final shot that is a major misstep in what is an otherwise excellent horror film.

Despite this, The Descent is truly a frightfully exhilarating cinematic experience that I wholly recommend you see in a theater with an audience. And I dare you not to jump.

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