THE DESCENT (2005)
Director: Neil Marshall

Horror films are designed to push the emotional buttons of those that watch them, to make their audience go past the boundaries of their "comfort zones" and confront the terrors that lie deep within the shadows of the human imagination. However, a certain phenomenon has sprung up in Hollywood in recent years: the PG-13 horror movie. While some horror movies can still be effective with a PG-13 rating, many are constricted by the rating, unable or unwilling to be truly terrifying so the movie can better serve teenage moviegoers with more delicate sensibilities. The uprising of tamer, less offensive horror has also seen a rise in disenfranchised horror movie fans looking overseas for movies that they can get behind. Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has been quickly gaining a cult following in America, and international movies such as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, High Tension, and Wolf Creek have all received enthusiastic responses when released in the United States. Another such import was Neil Marshall's The Descent. First released in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2005, The Descent made the voyage to American theaters a year later to critical accolades and modest box office success. And folks, it just may be one of the best imported horror films yet.

THE DESCENT (2005)One year after surviving a traumatic car accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is still recovering. To help move on with her life, Sarah's friend Beth (Alex Reid) convinces her to go on their annual thrillseeking adventure as planned. Instead of whitewater rafting in Ireland like the year before, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the third part of their daredevil trio, has lined up a caving expedition in the North Carolina mountains. Sarah and Beth meet up with Juno at a cabin in the woods, where we're introduced to the other three members of their party: tomboyish daredevil Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and sisters Sam (Myanna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder).

The six camp out in their cabin for the night, then head out for the cave the next morning. They're not very deep into the cave before a particular corridor collapses, sealing off the way they came in. And that's when a bombshell gets dropped. What they initially believed was a well-scouted, easily navigable cave system is revealed by Juno to be uncharted territory. She found the cave herself, and thought the group would be brought closer together by being the first to explore it. This goes over with the other five like a fart in church, especially now that for all they know, they're trapped.

The six continue onward in search of another exit, but when Holly mistakens a glowing phosphorus deposit for daylight, she takes a pretty nasty fall and fractures her leg. But unfortunately for them, Holly's broken bones are the least of their worries. As the others patch up her wound, Sarah wanders off and sees what appears to be a very pale man drinking from a puddle. So either the kid from Powder went feral, or something is really wrong. It disappears when it senses her, and when she attempts to tell the other five, they merely dismiss it as a hallucination. But it isn't long before they find themselves under attack by a number of deformed, bloodthirsty creatures just like what Sarah described. Stuck two miles underground with no known exits, the six must fight for their lives and find a way out.

I've developed a theory that perhaps the horror genre's strongest presence in the twenty-first century lies beyond the borders of the United States. With The Descent, that theory is further reinforced. The movie is suspenseful, frightening, and absolutely enthralling. It is an example of everything that a horror movie should have: brilliant direction, a tight script, believable acting, terrifying antagonists, and a claustrophobic atmosphere. It is a truly scary and effective piece of filmmaking, and should be required viewing for aspiring horror filmmakers. Writer/director Neil Marshall makes the most his sophomore film (following his highly-praised 2002 werewolf movie Dog Soldiers), and his work here is exemplary. Despite the plot's striking similarities to the horribly mediocre American movie The Cave, Marshall's screenplay is deceptively layered, and there is much going on beneath its simple exterior. The film's coda — both the original British one and the shortened American one — leave the viewer wondering about the deeper meanings what we have just seen. While I don't want to give anything away, one could entertain the notions that the ending could be offhandedly similar to High Tension's twist, or that it could be akin to Carnival of Souls or Ambrose Bierce's 1886 short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

Marshall's direction is also stellar. We stay outside of the cave for the twenty minutes of the movie, getting to know our characters, giving each of them a personality and establishing their relationships with one another. From there, Marshall spends the next half-hour building a chillingly claustrophobic atmosphere that can frighten even the most jaded of horror fans. He radically shifts the vibe in a much different direction at about fifty minutes into the movie, as Marshall leads us down a much more visceral road upon the first attack by the creatures. During many of the attack scenes, Sam McCurdy's cinematography is shaky and the editing is frantic. The wild camerawork and editing could be seen as echoing the confusion the characters feel. We have a hard time getting a grasp on some of the action, something I'm sure the characters are going through as well.

Marshall, with the help of McCurdy's camerawork, gives The Descent a certain visual flair that does wonders to set the movie's tone. The outdoor scenes prior to entering the cave look like the colors have been washed out, seemingly beset upon by a grey/white haze that gives these scenes an eerie dreamlike quality. On the other hand, the scenes in the cave are lit either by yellow flashlights, red flares, green and orange glowsticks, or the occasional night vision thanks to the viewfinder of the group's camcorder. The lighting (or lack thereof) not only makes it easier for things to pop out of the darkness, but when used in collaboration with the tight sets, it makes the atmosphere much more terrifying. Unfortunately, the dim lighting also makes it tough to tell who is who in certain scenes. Not being able to tell the actresses apart can be pretty distracting, as some viewers might concentrate on figuring out who's in the scene instead of being caught up in the action.

The score by David Julyan is also superb, managing to be intense without being invasive or overbearing. Julyan's music is ambient and moody prior to the appearance of the creatures, enhancing the tension that Marshall is building. And after the monsters attack, the score retains some of its ambience while becoming primal, almost schizophrenic. It was everything a horror movie score should be: supportive of the film while still managing to be scary in its own right. I similarly liked the makeup effects. Though the are concealed in darkness or low lighting much of the time (which also helps to mask any budgetary shortcomings), the creature are very well done, as are other effects like Holly's broken leg.

But in a movie such as this, the acting is just as crucial to the movie's success as direction or special effects are. As I said before, it's rough to tell the actresses apart in some scenes, but when you can, they're great. I was especially drawn to Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, and Nora-Jane Noone. Noone is humorous and engaging, while Mendoza's layered performance made her character that much more mysterious. But of the three I named, perhaps Macdonald was the best. She hits all the right emotional buttons, paralleling Carrie White as she transitions from an emotional wreck during most of the movie into a blood-drenched killer of monsters near the end.

Online film critic James Berardinelli wrote in his review, "The Descent isn't perfect, but it gets a lot of things right." I'm inclined to agree with that statement. The Descent is violent, harrowing, and absolutely terrifying. Not once does it show any mercy, living up to its name by taking we the viewer on an unrelenting descent into terror that reiterates my belief that Eurasian horror is on a level far beyond that of American horror. While the movie is most definitely graphic, it is not the only thing that Marshall brings to the table. Quite a few filmmakers are satisfied with drowning their movie in gallons of blood and guts and calling it a horror movie, while Marshall proves that some directors remember that being disturbing is just as important as being disgusting. The film is everything that a horror movie should be, and for that, I give The Descent four and a half stars.

Final Rating: ****


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