Descent, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/03/06 22:25:24

"Another movie reason to avoid the Appalachians."
5 stars (Awesome)

We are warned early in “The Descent” that cave explorers often suffer from dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, and hallucinations, and that’s just for starters. This is not a threat, but a promise.

Since its release in the UK last year, “The Descent,” written and directed by Neil Marshall (maker of the cult favorite “Dog Soldiers”), has become the most highly anticipated horror import since “28 Days Later.” And like that film, it turns out to be so very much worth the wait. This is the kind of horror movie horror fans mention when they try to explain why they love horror movies; it is brutal and effective, genuinely frightening throughout, and made by someone with a solid grasp of all film can do. Straight up, this is a brilliant movie.

The story has an elegance to its simplicity: following a personal tragedy, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) travels with some friends to the Appalachian Mountains in hopes of relaxing with a little spelunking adventure. One of the women (Natalie Mendoza) tricks them into exploring an unmapped cavern. A cave-in traps them, and they must look for a new way out. And then very bad things start happening.

It’s not the freshest of premises - heck, we just got “The Cave” last summer - but watch what Marshall does with it. Following an opening shocker that’s nothing less than a kick to the face, we spend the first several scenes in a bit of a daze; like Sarah, we’re trying to recover, but unlike Sarah, we know that this movie isn’t called “Happy Fun Time Spelunking Adventure Party,” and we’re unsteady as we’re on the look out for those very bad things to start happening.

But that’s us. Marshall lets his characters relax. It’s just a weekend getaway, nothing could possibly go wrong. And so all the tensions we get as the women enter the cave are minor: those of us afraid of heights squirm at the initial drop into the cavern; those of us with claustrophobia tense up when the ladies have to crawl through the smallest of openings. It’s only little by little that the terror builds, as worse and worse things happen. A panic attack here, a broken leg there. By the time we get to the meat of the story, our nerves are already knocked loose. There’s no chance of recovering now.

Consider the scene in which Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) climbs across a chasm, swinging across the cavern ceiling in an attempt to attach pitons so others may cross using ropes. This sequence alone is more nerve-wracking than other entire thrillers put together. Marshall cranks the tension as tightly as it can possibly go. Yet he also reminds us of the realism of such a scenario - Rebecca is in great physical pain throughout, screaming and grunting with every move she needs to make in order to keep from falling - and that adds an extra kick to it all. Marshall has taken the simplest of scenes and crafted something brilliant in its nail-biting-ness.

Marshall’s greatest achievement here as a director is in his use of light and darkness. “The Descent” is one of those films best watched in the darkest of theaters (or, come DVD time, the darkest of home theaters), as the very lack of visibility becomes a character all to itself. Watch how Marshall plays with us, what we can and can’t see. He allows the darkness to work on our fears, wondering what’s lurking in the shadows. The use of night vision on a camcorder becomes a powerful tool, then, as it reveals to us things otherwise unseen. Marshall’s timing with this device is exceptional - at the screening I attended, I jumped from my seat multiple times, while a woman behind me didn’t just yell, but full-on screamed, loud and long, the kind of scream that suggests a horror filmmaker has done something truly special in scaring the crap out of us all.

His greatest achievement on the writer side of things, however, has nothing to do with scares. It is, instead, his boldness in opting to allow plenty of down time in the film. One has to wonder how much of what occurs on screen is in the head(s) of the main character(s), and to fuel this notion, Marshall provides moments of us quietly watching the women fall apart inside. And when he’s not doing that, he’s letting us watch as the tension slowly builds between them all, paranoia becoming properly earned and backstabbing more than a metaphor. A lesser filmmaker would have plowed straight ahead with horror action, or at least edited things down afterwards to keep things chugging forward. But Marshall understands that great terror can be had from the quietest of moments, and so he lets his characters (and, by extension, the viewer) simmer in a mental haze. The loud, brutal, violent moments might shock us right out of our seats, but it’s in the more thoughtful, reflective scenes where the movie truly gets under our skin. (The cast, by the way, is plenty able to deliver where it counts. Thanks to them, we genuinely care what happens to these people - a welcome rarity in the horror field.)

And this is why “The Descent” is such a memorable horror experience. It affects us in every way a great horror flick should - it provides us with everything from immediate jump scares to long, lingering bits of mood that stick with you long after the credits roll. It shows us cringe-inducing violence, yet also finds delight in the subtlest of mental and emotional shocks. It grabs us as tightly as it possibly can, then uses every weapon at its disposal to keep its hold. It builds and builds and builds, piling terror upon terror until we can’t take it anymore - and then we get more terror still. It is everything a horror movie should be, and more. This is the most gripping, shocking, involving, and downright frightening movie to be made in quite some time.

A final note: There has been much discussion over Lionsgate’s decision to offer a re-edited version of the finale for American audiences, trimming a key scene from the ending of the UK original and stopping things on a louder level. Having seen both endings, I’m tempted to state that I just might prefer the new, American ending. The British finale manages to tie itself into a key character and clear some things up a little better, yes, but the American edit is tighter and more compact and therefore arguably more effective in its one-last-shock potential. Both endings, fortunately, are deliciously ambiguous, and both leave you wanting to take the ride all over again - but only after your nerves have calmed down.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.