DVD Review: The Descent
The Descent (2006)
DVD Release Date: December 26, 2006
Directed By: Neil Marshall
Cast: Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Myanna Burning, Nora-Jane Noone
Brutal As Hell Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars
Review By: Benjamin Bussey
One year after a tragic accident, a group of friends bound together by a love of adventure sports reunite in the Appalachians for a caving expedition. As you might expect, things do not quite go according to plan, and soon enough old tensions come to the surface as it looks as though they may be trapped. And that wasn’t bad enough, as they struggle to find their way out they come to realise that they are not the only living creatures in the caves. Can they escape – and if so, what will be left of them?
It’s a simple enough premise, from which one might expect nothing more than a fun monster movie. And this The Descent indeed is. But it brings a hell of a lot more to the table. Neil Marshall’s second feature doesn’t just deliver on the promise of the entertaining but light-hearted Dog Soldiers; it establishes Marshall as one of the greatest writer/directors working in the genre today. Eschewing the comedic approach of his first movie, Marshall crafts a masterpiece of straight-faced, hard-edged horror that positively crawls with suspense, claustrophobia and paranoia.
While the concept of a group of women getting sweaty in an enclosed space – “six chicks with picks,” as Marshall has wryly put it – could easily have lent itself to sleazy cheesecake, the director wisely stays focused on the drama rather than the derriere. Nor is any time wasted getting to the dramatic. There’s a foreboding atmosphere from the get-go, and once the action moves underground the tension piles on thick and fast, with an intense tunneling sequence and a ceiling climb (simultaneous claustrophobia and vertigo!) playing particular havoc with the nerves. And all this before the bloodthirsty denizens of the caves make themselves known. A common complaint of this film, one with which this reviewer does not concur, is that some regard the first monster-free half to be scarier than the creature feature finale. While it isn’t a transition of From Dusk Till Dawn-ish outrageousness, it’s fair to say The Descent does shift in tone somewhat once the flesh-eating Crawlers come into the mix, but it’s every bit as effective as the first act. Atmospheric build-up gives way to full-on visceral payoff; blood gushes, flesh rips, heads splatter, and adrenaline surges.
Aesthetically, it’s hard to think of many horror films as effective as this in recent years. Not only is it dark in tone, it’s literally very dark visually, pretty much all the light coming from such onscreen sources as torches, flares, and a camcorder on night vision. This visual power is beautifully complimented by a haunting, minimal score from David Julyan. And while there are distinct echoes of many of the great claustrophobic horrors, the Alien movies and The Thing in particular, this is a movie with a distinct personality all of its own that can hardly be labeled a rip-off. (Of course the same cannot be said for Marshall’s follow-up feature Doomsday, but that’s another story.)
Finally, to address what seem to be the other key complaints naysayers have about The Descent: first, that the characters are indistinct, making it hard to remember who’s who; second, that the final act is too ambiguous and leaves the viewer unsure as to what’s actually going on, particularly when viewed with the final minute that was trimmed for the US theatrical release. Okay – let’s see if I can put this gently… these complaints are BULLSHIT, dropping like putrid turds from the mouths of those too used to movies that spell everything out for them in black and white. (See, I can be impartial when I try.) The ambiguity is a huge part of what makes The Descent such an excellent horror movie. Marshall isn’t content to just get your heart working overtime, he’s demanding the viewer’s brain do a little work too, and God knows we need a lot more filmmakers taking that attitude. As for the characters being hard to distinguish, I’d have thought that the variety of accents alone – Scottish, English, Irish, Danish and American – would do half the job. It’s to Marshall’s credit that he doesn’t pad things out with extraneous backstory and character detail. Again, it’s up to the viewer to pay attention and fill in the blanks, and thanks to the all-around great performances it isn’t difficult to do so.
And yes, this film must be watched with the original ending intact, rather than the cropped and frankly insulting US alternative. It’s a nightmarish masterstroke that leaves things open to interpretation, yet at once closes the book perfectly. As such, it’s hard not to feel wary of the upcoming sequel that uses the US ending as its starting point; this writer for one cannot help worrying that it will only serve to demystify proceedings. But let’s not dwell on such concerns. The Descent is easily the best horror movie to come out of Britain since Hellraiser, and as such ranks pretty high on the list of the best British horror movies of all time. Fire up the DVD, turn out the lights, and prepare to learn that you’re way more claustrophobic than you thought you were.