Posts Tagged ‘The Descent’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 21st 2005:

How times change. A few years ago it seemed that nearly every British horror movie had a khaki tint to it, and one of the best of these was Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. This year’s horror a la mode tends toward subterranean horridness, with the trail ickily blazed by Creep back in February. And now we have The Descent, a quite similar (but definitely superior film) written and directed by Marshall, again. This guy’s gonna get typed…

Trying to recover from a personal tragedy, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) embarks on a sort of adventure holiday with five of her feisty girlfriends. They spend the start of the film drinking, swearing, being spunky and generally acting like they’re auditioning for a commercial for feminine hygiene products. And then the main event of their trip gets underway: an expedition into a cave system underneath the Appalachian mountains. As you can probably guess, things do not go According To Plan, as they find themselves sealed in, short on supplies, and increasingly aware that there are some very foul things in the deep places of the earth…

Well, you always know pretty much what’s coming at any given point in The Descent, but that doesn’t stop it being the most twitchily effective horror movie I’ve seen in a very long time. It grips like a vice from very near the start and doesn’t relax until the surprisingly low-key ending arrives – groans and moans drifted around the theatre where I saw it, so it wasn’t just me. Marshall expertly ratchets up the tension – it isn’t until nearly halfway into the film that he wheels on his real nasties, but all the scenes with the characters trapped underground, caught in rockfalls, dangling over bottomless abysses, and suffering grisly accidental injuries were quite nerve-shredding enough on their own.

And the monsters themselves are very effective too – okay, so they’re very nearly Gollum-a-likes, but these Pellucidarean chavs look and behave convincingly and the rationale behind them, though barely given, is just about plausible. My only real criticism of The Descent, other than to mention some duff but forgivable CGI, is that it’s set in American caves rather than under, for example, the Yorkshire Dales (even though it was filmed in the UK). Either this is a peculiar attempt to appeal to the US market (a lead character is American, which may be for the same reason) or Marshall just can’t bring himself to take the idea of monsters under Wharfedale seriously (clearly he hasn’t met the locals). As it is his film does seem rather like an extra-length and extra-gory episode of The X Files, which isn’t necessarily a problem but does mean it feels rather more derivative than it absolutely needed to.

Well, anyway. It’s an impressively well-mounted film, and the acting is up to scratch. As someone who’s done a tiny amount of caving, I was tremendously impressed by the fact that Marshall managed to make a film underground at all, let alone one as effective as this, because I was totally convinced it was shot in a real cave system. But apparently the whole thing was done on sets, so I suppose I should just be tremendously impressed with the production designs instead.

In the end The Descent is just a very simple and very effective film, made with considerable panache and energy. It doesn’t have a deep subtext or a subtle, misleading plot. It doesn’t have tremendous depths of characterisation or fantastic virtuoso camerawork. But what it does have is the burning desire to scare the audience nearly to the point of trauma, and the skill to very nearly achieve this. Recommended.

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