Shauna Macdonald as Sarah
Natalie Mendoza as Juno
Alex Reid as Beth
Saskia Mulder as Rebecca
MyAnna Buring as Sam
Nora-Jane Noone as Holly
Oliver Milburn as Paul
Molly Kayll as Jessica
Craig Conway as Crawler – Scar
Leslie Simpson as Crawler
Mark Cronfield as Crawler
Directed by Neil Marshall
“The Descent” is horror in its most evolved state, descending the viewer into the darkest pits of terror with a very dim light at the end of that tunnel.
Six women go spelunking in an uncharted cave in the Appalachian Mountains. As tensions mount between them from being trapped down there, they encounter strange primordial creatures that feast on the living. It’s not likely to help matters.
Horror movies either go one of two ways. They’re either great or they’re terrible, and there’s rarely anything in between. With that generalized statement out of the way, I have to say that Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” is clearly in the former department, since it’s not your typical “teens go somewhere and get slaughtered” horror movie, and like “Hostel” and “Hard Candy,” it hopefully will set a new bar for what’s to come.
It opens innocuously enough with six women on a whitewater rafting expedition, and as they go their separate ways, one of them, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), gets into a horrible accident that kills her husband and daughter, putting her into a near-catatonic state of shock. A year later, she’s on the road to recovery and the group has decided to reunite for their annual outdoor adventure, this time by exploring caves in the Appalachian Mountains. Led by Natalie Mendoza’s Juno, outgoing and adventurous often to the point of risking life and limb, they wind up spelunking into what turns out to be uncharted cave. Soon, the six women find themselves trapped and having to find a new way out, and as they get further into the system, panic grows when they learn that they’re not down there alone.
That general synopsis will probably sound like a very generic horror movie premise, and though director Neil (“Dog Soldiers”) Marshall’s influences are somewhat obvious, but veering more towards thrillers like “Deliverance” and “Alien” than out-and-out horror movies. The key difference in “The Descent” being so effective is that it features an all-woman cast, which by its very nature, changes the character dynamics and the tone. Gone is all the testosterone-driven posturing in favor of strong, driven women who exhibit the gamut of emotions that real women do. Not that the women aren’t pleasant to look at, but Marshall avoids the gratuitous nudity and sex that seems like a prerequisite for every single horror movie these days. It’s a noble effort that’s deeply appreciated by anyone sickened by the wave of misogyny that has permeated horror movies for decades.
Like last year’s “Wolf Creek,” it spends a good amount of time introducing the characters and showing their relationships before putting them into danger. Anyone worried that this character development might bog the movie down in talking heads need not worry. It does take about an hour to get the creatures and actual gore, but it offers a number of unexpected scares and shocks as it goes long, so that by the time the underworld beasties show their misshapen heads, you’re already on the edge of your seats and terrified how much worse things are about to get.
That’s really where the fun begins though, as Marshall uses this new element to unleash the full battalion of his production team by filling the caves with carcasses and gore and grisly underground lakes of blood, most of it not for the faint of heart or stomach. Wisely avoiding the CG that has killed so many other movies, the creatures themselves are played by actors in make-up. Using sonar-like abilities to make up for their lack of sight, they’re still very much humanoid, except for the way they quickly scuttle about before attacking, but it’s the realism that makes them that much more horrifying.
In that way, “The Descent” owes as much to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and its “real world” terror, introducing the characters and then putting them into what seems like an impossible situation for them to overcome. Anyone who has ever gone into a cave or mine must have felt that fear, but here it’s taken to the furthest extreme, making the film darker and heavier than other horror movies. (Hey, this is horror; it’s not meant to be light and fun.)
The entire film looks amazing, which might have been difficult considering the confined spaces and limited light (and presumably limited budget), but Marshall uses all of these things to his advantage to give the movie a distinctive look and feel, while adding to the claustrophobia and terror of every scene.
The performances are all top-notch, especially MacDonald and Mendoza as the polar opposites on the team, MacDonald’s Sarah being the most fragile due to her losses and Mendoza’s Juno being brash and outgoing. Both of them go through an amazing transformation that would never be possible with the normal horror bimbos in their roles, and it’s interesting to watch their relationship and attitudes evolve once things start going horribly wrong.
The very title adds another level of intrigue to the movie. While it’s likely to be taken quite literally in the physical sense of these women descending down into the caves, I personally would like to believe that the title represents the characters’ descent into their own personal hells, whether it’s about them losing control or descending into the deepest and darkest place in their own psyche. The tension and fear that Marshall builds up over the course of this movie is likely to have a similar effect on the viewer.
The Bottom Line:
Neil Marshall is such a welcome contributor to the horror genre, since he’s a thinking person’s director not afraid to do more with the genre creatively than the numerous copycats and hacks working today. While “The Descent” takes a bit of time to really let loose, the way he builds the tension and develops the characters in the process, makes the payoff that much more effective.