(Debut Date: March 11, 2005 [Belgium - Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Films])
(UK Premiere Date: July 06, 2005 [Dead By Dawn Horror Film Festival])
(UK Release Date: July 08, 2005)
(USA Release Date: August 04, 2006)
That, my friends, is saying something!
Writer/ Director Neil Marshall is no stranger to cranking up the chills, having brought us the VERY effective Dog Soldiers in 2002. If anything he's improved in that vein. The Descent is another "scary human-eating creatures in a cave movie", which we've seen enough times to know what to expect. In fact, at times The Descent felt very familiar, as if Marshall might have a battered VHS copy of Alien 2: On Earth lying around (or as if the creators of The Cave might have been doing a little eavesdropping of their own).
I've never considered myself to be claustrophobic before, but friends and neighbors, I was twisting and turning in my seat in anxious fear long, long, long before the actual monsters started showing up. Marshall's directing explores some real-life perils of cave exploration, much deeper and less comfortably than any other film I've seen. In truth, we possibly could have done without the monsters. This thing was scary as hell on its own.
But man, oh, man, does this thing stay scary. I must admit that there are parts of The Descent that, if you'll pardon the pun, don't quite surface. In fact, once or twice, I kind of shook my head at a stupid thing or two. These quickly evaporated, thankfully, and stayed pretty well gone almost until the end (when they rear their bald, white, ugly heads all over again).
One year after a life-changing trauma (I'm not saying what, but it's got Audrey Rose written all over it), a young Scottish woman named Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is putting her life back together, slowly but... well, not so surely. However, she and her best friend Beth (Alex Reid) give in and attend a reunion of sorts of their best Extreme Sporting girlfriends. The third in their trio, Natalie Jackson Mendoza's Juno, has invited Beth, Sarah and a veritable platoon of sporty ladies to go on a cave exploration trek. Newbies to the group include Saskia Mulder's pragmatic Rebecca, her daughter and soon-to-be Doctor, MyAnna Buring's Sam and the prerequisite EXTREEEEEME chick, Nora-Jane Noone's Holly.
After a somewhat slow opening the ladies unite to conquer an uncharted cave somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. Small problem, it's more of a Gash in the Earth, not a rounded opening resembling a Mouse Hole, like in the Tom & Jerry cartoons. Okay, so for extreme sporting hotties, maybe that's not a problem and more of a challenge, but for me... argh!
This is where things begin to get tense. Very tense. Marshall captures that feeling of crawling through a tiny space with barely enough space to fit a human being in. He then wrenches up the suspense as the passages keep getting smaller. I was grabbing my arm wrests expecting someone to get stuck or the cave to collapse in on them at any minute. It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that both things happen (or else these ladies would just walk their happy asses the hell out of the cave, now wouldn't they?). The thing is, even expecting this, everyone in the theatre jumped. Marshall's got it where it counts. His camera work (finding multiple angles in a tiny passageway that actually looks real) and choice of sound effects kept me tied up in knots. And Kiddies, at this time there was barely more than a foreshadow of a monster in this labyrinth!
From this point, we watch a desperate attempt for escape as our Six Leads brave impossible heights, dangerous cave-ins, a dearth of supplies and a finite battery life on their only sources of light. As I said, this film could have worked as a survival thriller like Alive or Daylight and we wouldn't even need the monsters. That's pretty much how I felt when things went from "incredibly bad" to "even worse than that" and the Featured Creatures made their Promenade Debut. At first there was little truly scary about these freaks. Marshall even seemed to be using some cheap techniques and fooling mechanisms calculated to startle, not frighten (let's face it, amp up the tension this much and you're bound to get some jumpers in the audience, just by yelling "BOO!"). Creepy, unseen beasts that kill people... been there, done that... even in a Cave setting.
However, this feeling quickly evaporated as the "villains" here took shape. Marshall works the magic he performed to make cave-crawling alone scary on the denizens of these caverns, credited as "Crawlers". Even if you can figure these things out before the obligatory exposition, these predators are scary as hell, and made more so by the fact that these are generally not CGI post-prod add-ons, but people in very scary makeup (designed by Paul Hyett). The vaguely human appearance adds a lot to the realism of these things and helps to scare the bejezus out of you when they pop up for a bite.
The Descent comes off as part The Cave, part The Hills Have Eyes (they're ALL Michael Berryman), part Dead Birds, part Aliens, part Dog Soldiers and part ESPN's The X-Games with the cast of The L-Word as participants. There are more than the requisite fair share of big scares and more blood and gore than a Phlebotomist's private stash! Make no mistake, this is a very brutal movie, packed with more violence than The Passion of the Christ and Kill Bill Volume 2 put together (but still less than Volume 1... because... damn!). In many ways the violence is gratifying in the same way The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left are, but at other times it feels a little unnecessary and illogical. That said, when it works, it works. There's nothing like seeing a tough woman or six battling it out with a bunch of Morlocks, the looks of which would make Nosferatu stand up and say "Damn... You ugly!" The violence and gore never feel gratuitous and always seem to fit the plot and scenes, even when it doesn't quite gel (or coagulate) in the logic category.
All this leads up to a somewhat predictable ending that sacrifices good sense for the now ubiquitous "Twist in the End". That said, it's hard to imagine that a film like this wouldn't be at least a little predictable. Marshall has again succeeded in taking something that for all rights should feel very familiar and stale and makes it seem instead fresh and original. Very little in movies manages to surprise me these days. Even less than that manages to actually scare me. The Descent did. Is it "The Best Horror-Thriller since Alien"? Uh... no... definitely not. However, it is one hell of an effective Horror-Thriller, well worth the look... just leave your claustrophobia at home. I will say this... The Descent is "The Best Trapped-in-a-Cave Horror-Thriller since Alien 2 made no impact at all"!
Three and One Half Stars out of Five for the very scary, not perfect, but damned good The Descent. Again, I'm a little spoiled on this because, after seeing Alien 2, just about anything vaguely similar would seem like a masterpiece. With creature effects like this (even when you do see the "whole thing") and the sparingly used CGI, this makes for one hell of a nightmare for anyone who gets to see it. Actually, I thought I was going to see a movie called "The Decent"... I was reading about it online, saw "Extreme Sporting Athletic Babes" then the word "Bottomless" and I resolved to see it immediately. Just about then my Laptop battery died. I guess there was a "Pit" after the word "Bottomless". Surprised me. As for the similar films out there, The Descent is definitely better than The Cave, which in turn is a hell of a lot better than Alien 2... but then again... as opposed to The Cave and The Descent, Alien 2 had nudity.
See you in the next reel, ugly!
Give yourself plenty of Rope...
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