The Descent
directed by Neil Marshall
(Lions Gate, 2005)

Truth be told, this film does take a while to really get going, and some of the story elements could have been presented more effectively. When it gets going, though, The Descent easily attains not-to-be-missed status, and on top of all the incredible special effects, oppressive atmosphere and grievous bloodletting (made with a pretty limited budget, by the way), one of the most important plot points of the story is actually brought home in an impressively subtle manner. Are you kidding me? Blood, gore, a claustrophobic atmosphere like you wouldn't believe -- and subtlety?

So you've got these young British women who like to get together once a year and engage in some sort of risky, extreme activity, like whitewater rafting. Everyone has fun, but then a horrible automobile accident changes the life of one woman, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), forever. Still recovering from her terrible loss, Sarah joins her friend Beth (Alex Reid) in America, where mutual friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), an alpha female if ever there was one, has staked out a cave system just begging to be explored. Joining in the fun are Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno's new gung-ho sidekick, and a couple of sisters who round out the spelunking sextet.

The movie drags a good bit as we watch the girls arrive at their destination in the Appalachians (apparently somewhere in North Carolina -- although the movie was filmed entirely in the UK), then do their bonding thing the night before the big adventure. Once they descend into the caves, though, things start getting more intense fairly quickly. Their first real move down into the complex of cave structures turns into quite a tight and claustrophobic ordeal, especially for Sarah who gets stuck and is barely pulled to safety before the tunnel collapses. That's when Juno, a woman with more than her fair share of secrets, admits she has led the girls into a system that has never been explored before, supposedly to help reunite the group. Well, it does just the opposite, but they just have to keep going. If there is a way out, they're going to have to find it the hard way.

Things are already creepy enough at this point. The filmmakers did an incredible job with the sets, making the viewer feel trapped in a real cave system with the characters. Just watching these girls pull their bodies through extremely tight, dark spaces was enough to get me feeling pretty darn claustrophobic. But the real fun was just about to begin. In the wake of one of the most realistic compound leg fracture scenes you'll ever want to squirm through, Sarah spots the presence of someone or something else down there with them. No one believes her -- at first. When the "crawlers" attack, though, all hell breaks loose two miles under ground. These Gollum-like creatures are some kind of blind, albino humanoids who hunt by sound, can scamper and climb like monkeys, move unbelievably quickly, and really tear into whatever flesh they can find.

Not only are they frighteningly impressive in and of themselves, the filmmakers present them in the most effective cinematic light. And when the girls fight back, it's cinematic magic as the filmmakers hold nothing back in the creepy, bloody, gruesome department. And even as characters are fighting for their lives, a personal bombshell or two drops to ratchet up the frenetic drama level even higher.

The ending is a little controversial because American theatrical audiences didn't get to see the true final scene of the film, for some pretty questionable reasons. A few seconds can and do make a pretty big difference. Don't worry, though, as the DVD has both endings available.

The Descent draws deeply from the well of man's most instinctual fears, making it one of the most atmospheric, heart-pounding movies to come along in quite a while. The subtlety of the story in terms of the relationship between Sarah and Juno is almost as impressive as the cinematography and sound work -- and it even leaves room for an alternate explanation of everything that happens here. The Descent has everything you could ever ask for in a horror film -- and plenty more on top of that. If you care the first thing about horror, you must see this atmospheric tour de force.

review by
Daniel Jolley

27 October 2007

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