MOVIE REVIEW - The Descent
Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Neil Marshall
Producer: Christian Colson
Stars: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone
(NOTE: The cut reviewed here is the unrated edition available on DVD. I am told the ending differs somewhat.)
What a strange relief it is for there to be monsters. Most current horror films are either slick reels of sadism like the Saw trilogy or scantly-plotted surrealist freakouts like the Ju-On/Grudge franchise. Both are skin-crawlingly effective in their way but work against most dramatic fundamentals – they are flatly-acted nightmares that cannot be escaped, so in the end it doesn’t really matter what happens in the plot, doesn’t matter if the characters grow, change, fall in love, learn the truth about What Happened Back Then or finally go back to finish their degree – either they’re going to get torn asunder by something made of creaky metal or the pale people are going to coming clattering out of the beyond for them and that’s all there is to that.
But a monster can eventually be understood. It can be encountered, suffered, fought, eluded – it is scary but the people you’re watching might just have a chance…if they can overcome themselves. And so while The Descent may not conjure up the squirming disgust of the first modern trend or the squinting dread of the second, it really does tell a story, and works up some damn fine suspense in the bargain.
The Descent is the American breakthrough for British writer/director Neil Marshall, who seems to genuinely love monsters – in his previous film, Dog Soldiers, he was hampered by poor effects but still managed to make the best blend of scares, werewolves and laughs since, well, the only other movie to pull it off, An American Werewolf in London. Now he achieves a kind of double success, working us up to an unbearable peak of tension with nothing but the dangers in the natural world, and then, with a kind of glee, throwing monsters in on top of that.
There’s an additional, and most welcome twist, in that all of his main characters are women – athletic, capable women who never once, as hard as it gets, find themselves wishing there was a man around. They are friends bound by thrill-seeking – putting a man into the equation would be a useless distraction.
We see in the beginning how one man (Oliver Milburn) may have already introduced rifts in this group; but he is quickly, and rather messily, removed from the picture, leaving his widow Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) struggling to find her footing in this world again. Although she pops pills, and doesn’t tell anyone about the nightmares that come on whether she’s awake or asleep, she refuses to let her victim status ruin her friends’ fun.
Juno (Natalie Mendoza), a decided alpha who often assumes the role of squadron leader, has brought them deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a spelunking expedition. And Marshall pleasantly lingers on the equipment – the ropes and straps and clamps and flares – and the easy authority these women have with it. It helps us later when they need to discover other uses for what they’ve brought with them. And we see how focusing on this danger, plunging deep into the ground, wondering at the spaces to be found, then looking for another hole to plunge even deeper, provides an escape both mental and physical from the outside world.
And we appreciate just how fragile their safety really is. Just as it is dawning on these women that this cave is much more challenging and eerie than the tourist destination they thought they were going to, all it takes is the smallest vibration, and suddenly they are cut off from daylight.
It’s devious how Marshall uses universal, elemental fears to soften us up for the terrors ahead. He does not need to explain the sensation of squeezing your body through a rock tunnel, and realizing to your horror that you suddenly cannot move forward or backward, and in fact breathing is becoming much more difficult, and you cannot see your friends. We see it and then we feel it despite ourselves. Phobics be warned.
The reveal that (and how I love these words) they are not alone down there (and the less said about what, exactly, is down there, the better) sets off a vigorous second half of chasing, climbing, and the most bloody errors in judgment. The environment, cunningly chosen to allow for a contained budget, offers distinctly limited variety in terms of action but the filmmakers’ ingenuity lasts just long enough. In an environment like this, cheating will inevitably be necessary in the realm of lighting, cinematographer Sam McCurdy revels in the darkness without losing the movie in it, and also manages to avoid an obnoxious abundance of fake brightness.
There’s something else going on, too, Marshall is blurring our confidence in what we are witnessing, relying on Sarah’s wobbly state to suggest that we may, in all those dark passages we squeezed through, have actually left reality behind us. He provides an exhilarating enough ride that The Descent satisfies even with this ambiguity. And yet I don’t have 100-percent faith that he himself went to the trouble of deciding a logical path through the movie. I don’t mind things that remain open to interpretation, but I don’t appreciate having my narrative chain yanked for no good reason, and Marhsall is skirting perilously close to the latter. But hell, at least he made a narrative chain, and put some love, thought, and monsters into it. That’s enough to make The Descent different these days, and enough for me to endorse it.