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The Descent Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Descent Review
    Neil Marshall rocketed to fame with his glorious werewolf picture Dog Soldiers - a sly, low-budget shocker that snarled and ripped its way to critical and box-office acclaim in 2002. However, his giddy joy at hurling no-holds-barred violence and horror across the screen was more clinically inspired than childish; his genuine affection for the genre shining all the more brightly with the knowledge that he is a Brit. But, for his next movie, he went much, much further. Ditching the lad's humour and the fang-in-cheek wit of his earlier screenplay, he finely-honed his bloodletting tendencies and unleashed a movie of startling intensity, smart, lean characterisation and bravura scares that gains resonance with each viewing. The Descent is, quite simply, an awesome slice of cinematic terror, directed with gutsy style and acted with all-out seriousness by a cast of relative-unknowns, two factors that, coupled with the phobia-inducing setting of some very deep, very dark caves populated by some incredibly nasty flesh-eating creatures, combine to ensure a movie-experience that is shockingly powerful and stamped through and through with classic status.

    The plot is simple, linear and relentless. A group of six adventurous girls, one of whom is still recovering from a terrible tragedy which claimed the lives of her husband and daughter, take themselves off to the Appalachians to explore a cave network hidden deep in the wilderness. Cut off from any help when a rock fall traps them far below the ground, the girls have to trust their instincts and their skills in order to find another way out. But as they probe further and deeper into the ancient tunnels and caves it becomes clear to them that they are not alone down there. Fleeting glimpses of things in the dark, gnawed bones and prehistoric paintings on the wall seem to signpost the fact that they may trespassing where they have no right to be. And when further disaster strikes and they are savagely attacked by something hideous and primal, the girls find that they have to resort to their primitive rage in order to survive. It will be a fight to the death and, this time, Neil Marshall hasn't packed any laughs along for the trip.

    “I'm an English teacher, not f***ing Tomb Raider!”

    There are moments of the purest and most primal terror in this film that I have ever witnessed - and I've seen some raw stuff, believe me. But it is not just the juicy fact that Marshall likes to liberally splash the claret, it is the way in which he marries up the gut-wrenching violence with some jarringly psychological damage, as well. The atmosphere created, especially during the second half of the film, is one of complete alienation and emotional dislocation. Putting humans - and having his characters all females just enhances the trauma and audience-empathy all the more - into such a hostile environment and then subjecting them to a completely remorseless and relentlessly savage ordeal is a thoroughly nasty, and sickeningly effective hook with which to elicit emotion and pulverise the viewer. Over the years we have been treated to many examples of such horribly non-stop, and realistic survival-horror - with Texas Chainsaw, The Hills Have Eyes and Wolf Creek to name just three across the decades - but the circumstances in which these poor unfortunates find themselves in are, if anything, far worse. With the examples listed above there is always the possibility of escape, rescue or even the remote chance of bargaining with the antagonists because they are, although mightily deranged and regressive, still human. But the creatures in The Descent, though certainly evolved from some sort of desperate and wretched strand of humanity, have no such familiar morals left to them. They are base, crude and pitiless. They might not be sexual sadists or lunatics who thrive on torturing their victims but their thoroughly single-minded determination to kill and eat to survive leaves the girls no possible opportunity for negotiation, and little or no margin for outwitting their foe on their own turf. Cleverly taking the stance of civilised people in extreme circumstances having to resort to primitive savagery in order just to survive is, of course, nothing new in the genre. Even the likes of Straw Dogs, Southern Comfort and Deliverance revealed this drastic measure as being the only course of action left open to people when the situation is that dire, but Marshall actually puts this social comment into a totally ripe, blood and carnage setting and, in so doing, becomes a dyed-in-the-wool horror director who is actually proud to be such. Many filmmakers would spend more time peeling away the layers of mental breakdown rather than just flick blood around the set, diluting the horror of the scenario, but Marshall knows damn well what makes a film like this tick. He keeps the characters credible and alive and their internal agendas addressed but never over-examined. His screenplay tells us just enough of their group dynamic to let us observe them with understanding, sympathy and, ultimately, anguish. When the situation breaks down and the group fractures, it is done with a far less hysterical or over-cooked approach than Hollywood would have depicted, the rifts caused, therefore, much more realistic and, strangely, more random than you might expect.

    “Where are we?”

    “It hasn't got a name. It's a new system. No-one's ever been down here before. I wanted us to discover it ...”

    The scene when one of the poor girls has to keep quiet whilst she can see and hear a friend being ripped apart and devoured is spectacularly nerve-jangling, our sympathies twisted by the morbid curiosity that both we, and she, have to witness the atrocity taking place. Violence wrought about by the pickaxe-wielding cavers in retaliation to their predicament is equally dramatic and no less shocking for all its justification. The creatures preying on them (Crawlers as the original script calls them) no matter how despicable they are, are still just trying to get by, simply doing what they do - just like the shark in Jaws, or the acid-blooded xenomorph in Alien. As horrific their appearance and their deeds may be, this sort of thing is daily life to them. They are as trapped in these caves as the girls are - more so, in fact, as they could simply not survive topside. This is their environment. Their home. The girls belong in it as little as they do beneath the waves of the Great White's sea, and the phobia of such isolation has never been as effectively translated to the screen.

    But Marshall doesn't just play on our fundamental fear of the dark, he gives us a bloody good reason to be afraid of it. Or rather, what may be living within it.

    “I just saw something ahead ... in the tunnel!”

    The creatures themselves are initially vague and pathetic - pale nudists in the gloom. But once they get to grips with their unwary prey, the camera reveals them to be utterly grotesque knots of slimy muscle and claw, with heads not dissimilar to the Gary Oldman man-bat creature from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Their pallid, worm-like flesh strobes through the murk and when seen in horrific close-up their blind, filmy eyes roll spastically around faces that are pinched into cruel Nosferatu rat-fangs. The makeup is extremely effective, folks. I mean, you can practically smell these things! But their most disquieting aspect, apart from a jaw-dropping speed and agility, is their frenzied tooth and claw attacks. Like rabid dogs, these beasts will leap and ravage with complete abandonment, even fighting to claim new morsels of fresh meat. Neil Marshall excels in his many scenes of ferocious assault and creates such a mood of helplessness and fear of these creatures that the film often pitches into an uncomfortable air akin to seeing a gazelle ripped apart in front of the emotionless cameras of a wildlife documentary. He aims to distress, and I can heartily testify that he succeeds with gusto. The sight of an entire tribe of these things skulking about on the subterranean rocks is culled straight from a fever-dream. Even Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne would think twice about spelunking down into these caves.

    But none of the carnage would be half as effective if we didn't care about the protagonists.

    Top marks must go to Shauna MacDonald as Sarah, the ostensible main character of the ensemble. Struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family, Sarah becomes, in my opinion, one of horror's greatest poster girls - a kick-back bitch in touch with her instincts and possessing a raw determination to fight on until the end. With a few personal demons in tow - kudos to the great hospital-fright sequence early on that recalls Brad Anderson's great Session 9 - she ignites the screen with steely serious eyes, a Carrie-esque penchant for Zen-like rage and a full-on, pure-blood vigour to get thoroughly stuck-in. All the girls are good, though. Natalie (Code 46) Mendoza's hard-ass rock-jock Juno - she even gets a tough Roman warrior name - is another wilfully courageous character with a fiercely dominant streak, and totally believable in her slightly Machiavellian role. Nora-Jane Noone's Holly is a spunky, punky Gaelic delight with a nice line of in-yer-face retorts. But MacDonald and Alex Reid's Beth are the pair that enacts one of the most gut-wrenchingly powerful scenes that the genre has had to offer in the last couple of years - a tragic, soul-destroying moment that leaves me numb each time I see it. Those of you who have already seen the film will know exactly what scene I'm referring to but, for those that haven't, I will explain no more, sufficed to say that the bond of true friendship could hardly be tested more. Images of MacDonald's Sarah rising from a stomach-churning pool of blood adorn the cover of this R1 edition and, to give her even more iconic credit, she looks incredible when drenched with the stuff. Just check out the awesome shots of her glaring out from beneath a mask of gore, her sharp eyes acutely defining her descent from civilisation and the horrific regression that she has undergone.

    “One bat ... two bats ... fifty bats ... bwah, ha, haaa!

    The edgy score from David Julyan is dissonant and tonal, crafted to perfect a soundscape as unsettling as the dank domain in which the film is set. As such it is a delight, with menace, isolation and despair literally dripping from the film alongside the clammy visuals. At times his more melodic themes seem to echo James Horner's score for Aliens, and listen out for the Ennio Morricone-inspired heartbeat notes that recall the stark paranoia of The Thing. A similar sense of doom and tragedy tinges all. With camerawork that clings to the cast, bringing their plight unbearably up close and personal, and a nihilistic mood that is all-pervading, the sense of claustrophobia and loneliness is peerlessly evoked. The photography by Sam McCurdy is absolutely ravishing - full of odd and striking angles that fully exploit the darkness and the confined spaces as though shot by David Lean. Pockets of light, from helmet-torch or light-stick, ignite the gloom with desperately waning warmth and hope, the encroaching shadows becoming all the more solid and terrifying in contrast. The demonic green cast from a video-camera's night lens becomes a veritable glimpse into Hell, when the view contains such gruesome discoveries as those that we are permitted to witness. Early shots of the girls as they first descend into the cave are simply beautiful, and the suspense-filled sequence when they come to the edge of a precipice and light up the scene with red flares is almost hypnotic.

    “It's okay ... there's nothing there ...”

    The shocks that Marshall punctuates his film with are pure textbook examples of the trade. In fact, looking back at all the monster films that have I shuddered at over the years, I truly cannot think of one that offers more bona-fide “jumps” than this one. And, even if one or two of them are fairly standard, the majority are expertly woven into the frame, with the possibility of nastiness lurking anywhere within the image at any time lending enormous apprehension to every step that the girls take. Hats off to the brilliantly matter-of-fact reveal of a Crawler during a simple pan-around the cave with a camcorder. And the painfully protracted round-the-bend scare is absolutely exquisite, with several plateaus of tension giving us false hopes. This is Marshall's answer to the head-in-the-boat sequence from Jaws in that, even once you've seen it and you know the second it will happen, the shock is still guaranteed to get you every time. But the creep-out factor is not just exploited with cheap scare tactics; the atmosphere of dread is ever-present. The unwitting discovery of a bone-yard, the callous hoofing of one character's head as a beast attempts to sniff her out and the awful screaming of another victim being devoured add up to a film that simply doesn't play by the rules. The lads in Dog Soldiers had a tough time, but they were armed and trained to fight. The girls here have to learn to adapt pretty quickly and this transition, itself, is painful to watch. This version of the film finally allows the Americans to see the ending that Marshall had in mind all along, so don't get your hopes up with that Unrated tag, as the rest of the movie plays out just the same as our original UK cut. But at least our friends across the pond can now enjoy the fabulously eerie and haunting final shot that bewildered so many cinemagoers.

    As well as being one of the best, and one of the gutsiest horror films in recent years, The Descent marks Neil Marshall out as a force to be reckoned with in the genre. The maturity he has shown between Dog Soldiers and this is nothing short of remarkable and I, for one, cannot wait for his next offering. Proud, ferocious and packing a mighty wallop, The Descent - whichever version you opt for - is a DVD that belongs on every horror fan's shelf. Very highly recommended.