Descent, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 08/05/06 21:24:41

"Believe the hype."
5 stars (Awesome)

"The Descent," a mercilessly effective horror film from Britain, is not a movie I'd recommend to claustrophobics. Or maybe I would, if I were feeling sadistic. After all, it is a horror movie, and when we go to a horror movie we expect to feel emotions like, y'know, horror. Usually we don't. This time we do.

Written and directed by Neil Marshall, who made the well-liked werewolf film Dog Soldiers in 2002, The Descent arrives with all sorts of advance hype about how nerve-wracking and gut-wrenching it is, and for once a movie earns its buzz. Once it gets going, it shakes you and keeps shaking you.

Six young women of various nationalities get together to explore a cave in the Appalachians. One of them, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), endured a tragedy one year ago, and the other women hope to get her mind off things and surround her with support and excitement. The ringleader is Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who's somewhat arrogant about the great adventurer she is, or pretends to be; she even has an apprentice of sorts, the spiky-haired wild card Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, from The Magdalene Sisters). Rounding out the sextet are compassionate Beth (Alex Reid), climbing expert Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and med student Sam (MyAnna Buring). As it happens, everyone ends up grateful to have a med student along.

About two miles down, a cave-in blocks the women's way out, and they have to find or make another exit. Between this movie and World Trade Center, being buried alive seems to be the en vogue terror of the month. That would be traumatic in itself, but Marshall ups the ante with subterranean cannibals who live in the cave and presumably subsist on would-be explorers. They look like a bunch of Gollums, though the credits identify them as "crawlers." The monsters are a slight letdown -- the make-up on them doesn't always fool the eye -- but the way the first of them is fully introduced to the group is a memorably chilling image.

The Descent has two different endings depending on what country you see it in; we in America are getting a slightly shorter version, whereas the Brit edition is bleaker and brings back Sarah's frequent birthday-cake vision for one last hurrah. I've seen both, and the American ending (approved by the director, who wanted to see how this alternate finish would fly with a different audience) is, in its way, more disturbing. Either way would be a proper way to seal off a film that plays for keeps and isn't afraid to turn its likable, strong characters into moral weaklings who will do what they must to survive.

Indeed, the true horror of the movie -- especially its one indisputably shocking moment -- lies not in crawling, squealing Gollums but in the film's certainty that even these smart, well-prepared women can be undone by their own flaws. The women are drawn swiftly yet definitively; nobody acts out of character, and so we don't roll our eyes at rash or ill-advised actions that, in a lesser movie, would simply strike us as stupid. The Descent isn't an exercise in unmotivated sadism like last year's Wolf Creek, the previous heavily-hyped horror import. That film wanted to be a gnarly endurance test but came off as callow showmanship -- like a ten-year-old boy, it wanted to wow you with how grotesque it could be. ("I wants to make your flesh creep," said Joe the Fat Boy in Dickens' Pickwick Papers, without actually being able to; Joe could've directed Wolf Creek.) The Descent is an endurance test, too, but it gives you something worth enduring, and -- for some, I'm sure -- just barely endurable.

Even the sequences of no particular menace, when the women are squeezing themselves through the tight nooks and crannies of that godforsaken cave, press down hard on your chest. I didn't go into "The Descent" particularly claustrophobic, but I think I might be now.

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