Directed by Neil Marshall. Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll. (2005, R, 99 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 4, 2006
Is The Descent the horror film to beat for the foreseeable future? That depends, I suppose, on a number of things, not the least of which is how horrific you find the notion of watching a sextet of city folk take to the Great Outdoors without benefit of either John Boorman or “Dueling Banjos.” Granted, the outdoorsy types here are all female, and there’s not a Ned Beatty among them, although pretty much everyone ends up squealing like a pig at one point or another. But still, you’d think that we as a species would have picked up a thing or two from Burt Reynolds’ foray into the Georgian no-man’s-land: Forced by that which is within us to test our mettle against boundless nature, we always come up short, and occasionally in pieces, howling like mad at our own stubborn inability to stay put and read a good Joe R. Lansdale book. Fortune favors the brave? Not bloody likely, and certainly not in the North Carolina Appalachians (doubled by Scotland), where spelunking troupers Sarah (MacDonald), Juno (Mendoza), Beth (Reid), Rebecca (Mulder), Sam (Buring), and Holly (Noone) have assembled to wipe away the horrors of one year previous, when blunt-force tragedy struck Sarah’s family and ultimately nearly did her in as well. After an affecting reunion of these women – with only the barest of tough-girl clichés visible – and an extremely well-paced and -written series of expository dialogues, the real meat of director Marshall’s horror show begins to take shape. The outing is alpha-female Juno’s surprise for the lot: She’s discovered a new, unexplored, subterranean cavern in the area, and this is her gift to her friends. Despite misgivings (uncharted caves can be dicey propositions, even in the harsh light of day), the group heads off into the unknown, and it’s not long at all before one disaster after another occurs and then … things with teeth show up. Things with pale, distended, and, most importantly given the nature of The Descent, empty bellies. Marshall directed the justly praised werewolves-versus-British-soldiers-in-Scotland film Dog Soldiers a few years back, and, if anything, The Descent manages to ratchet up both the carnage (this is an extremely wet bloodbath) and his basic premise, which remains, “What happens to professionals when they encounter a contingency nobody planned for?” The answer, it will come as no surprise, has razor teeth and ghastly claws, fully extended. What The Descent does is take the woodsy, above-ground nightmare of Dog Soldiers and drag it down to, well, if not hell, then somewhere awfully nearby. It’s a smart move on Marshall’s part. I watched a special screening of this film in a real cave, underground, in the dark, and while the presence of an army of like-minded gorehounds did little to kick up my hackles, that primal fear of being buried alive – out of sight of the sun, of the sky, of anything at all but coffin-ready perma-night – worked wonders for my love of unencumbered daytime. Claustrophobic in a fun way while maintaining a brutally grim (but not so grim that domestic distributor Lions Gate kept the director’s unequivocally downbeat ending) tone to the bitter end, The Descent may not be everything you’ve heard, but man, it’s also a lot of things you haven’t.