The Descent (2005)

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) battles her own demons and some actual ones. "The Descent."

Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Produced by Christian Colson. Photographed by Sam McCurdy. Music by David Julyan. Edited by Jon Harris. Production designed by Simon Bowles. Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is such a splendid thriller—lean, atmospheric, intense—that it becomes somewhat of a letdown when the flesh-eating monsters finally show up. Up until then, this British production is practically a textbook example of well-made, creepy survival horror. Afterwards, it still remains a tight and engaging scary pic, but its seventh-inning commitment to being just a straight-up creature feature does undermine the inherent fascination, just a touch. It’s common practice to set up your horror film with simple, sharply-drawn individuals and plunge them into a nightmare plot, but The Descent is so good at realizing its early stages that its concluding ones, featuring screaming women running through caverns to escape a screeching, slimy menace can’t help but seem a tiny bit uninspired. It remains an absorbing, effective experience the whole way through, but I can’t shake the feeling it could have been a little more.

But let’s start with the opening stuff, focusing on six female thrill-seekers. Already this is unusual, since it’s tantamount to a law in Hollywood that women can’t cluster together onscreen without being prepared to discuss men, shopping, fashion. You know, girl stuff. Not only that, The Descent is about women who are confident, tough, independent and loyal. The movie embraces feminism—not shallow empowerment clichés, but the real thing. So committed is The Descent to its vision of strong female characters that it only allows a single man into the cast, simply that he can die in the first scene. So, we’re done with him. If you need a Y chromosome on screen, get your coat.

The man is Paul, husband of Sarah (Shauna McDonald), who is merry-faced right up until the moment when Paul and her daughter Jessica are tragically skewered by debris in a car crash. A year later, Sarah, still grieving, reteams with her circle of friends in a cabin somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. She hopes to restore their bond, but she finds herself aloof and alone in the midst of their easy camaraderie, which bounces between Beth (Alex Reid, the good friend), and the sisters Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Burning). Then there is the Scottish, punkish Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and the impetuous Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who is their de facto leader. These early passages hinge on two things: the script, which briefly introduces these six characters with color and distinction, and the acting, which avoids “women’s picture” clichés, finding a modest realism, even for characters in a horror plot. How nice to see a shock picture that can actually pass the Bechdel Test.

Juno, unlike Ellen Page’s Juno from…er, Juno, is headstrong, and just a little bit scary in her determination. She seems like she’s hiding something, and when she apologizes to Sarah for not being around after Paul’s death, it’s the kind of apology that still has the air of self-justification to it. What’s she hiding? No matter. It is Juno’s idea for the group to reforge their friendship by going caving in a nearby tunnel network. The women are challenge enthusiasts, they enjoy each other’s company, and this is what they do. So they bring moderate supplies and some basic equipment, prepared for a pleasant afternoon in the caves. I think I’m spoiling nothing if I write the following plot summary: You know that whole “pleasant afternoon” thing? It soooo does not happen.

The portions that follow will provide the centerpiece of the film—not just for the characters, who will go through hell, but for director Neil Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, who together create an underworld that is dangerous, dark and cruel…and also quite lovely. There’s plenty of queasy close-ups as the women peer into the darkness or panic in the middle of cramped tunnels. But then it opens up for lovely shots set in expansive galleries and bottomless caverns, formations older than man itself. The women wander the frame in compositions that are painterly and expressive. Sometimes the camera is close enough to catch all six in long shot, and sometimes it’s seemingly a mile away, regarding the women as if they are infinitesimal. Their flares provide thick red glows that bounce off the cave walls, making their surroundings warm and womb-like. Later, saturated blues and greens will work their way into the color palette – through both phospherecent glows and a nasty surprise that is seen on a camcorder monitor. I can’t labor the point enough that Marshall and McCurdy pick a visual strategy that is absolutely perfect for the material—early moments that capture dust falling in the path of a flashlight beam run counterpoint to later sequences that are slick and wet, and their use of negative space create in-universe “iris” shots, emphasizing choice details, like a silent film. Rather masterful.

This approach will support the narrative drive of the film’s midsection which is, simply put, one damn thing after another: rumblings, cave-ins and unsettling applications of their trade tools: pick-axes, pitons, ropes. Soon, comes an growing sense of hopelessness when it becomes clear that Juno, in her excitement, purposefully led the group to an unexplored cave system—never a good sign. They’re lost. There are bumps in the dark and blink-and-you-miss-it visual cues, and the mounting dread that they may run out of supplies or fall, entombed forever in the Earth. Later, their collective attempt to travel between two underground cliffs is tactile, vicious, and highly effective.  It’s dark and slimy and wet, and there are injuries. And what’s with the discovery of climbing equipment that’s over 100 years old, in a cave system never before explored? Uh-oh.The personalities of the characters become crystallized here, not just in little dialogue breaks between set-pieces, but in ways that inform their decisions even during the frenetic action sequences. Even while using standard tropes, the film never goes on autopilot.

But it does come perilously close in the concluding sections. When the monsters finally come out to play, they are artfully revealed, and the make-up work, supervised by Jennifer Harty and Vicki Lang, is incredibly well done as it visualizes a race of disgusting, two-legged beasts that look like a cross between Gollum and that iconic overgrown tapeworm from that episode of The X-Files. They can crawl across the cave walls and ceilings, their pale complexions and pursed lips are nasty. They are bloodthirsty as all get-out, leading to the inevitable question of what these things usually do for food, since six fleshy girls wandering their lair is presumably an infrequent occasion.

So now you know where this is going, and so does the movie, as it retreats to the well-worn formulas of slasher films as the characters are picked off one-by-one, despite doing a very good job of peering behind rocks and laying low, except when they’re screaming their lungs off.  Other moments are trucked in from the classic horror grab-bag of gewgaws, including the inevitable scene where one character looks in direction A, and then direction B, and decides the coast is clear, until…but you know how it goes. During one bit of dialogue amidst the carnage, they determine the biology of the creature as being entirely dependent on sound, and of course the payoff for that is when Sarah finds herself right in the middle of their lair, and has to watch them eat and snarl and spit and prowl, while staying very very quiet. Don’t get me wrong–the execution is faultless. All of this is done as well as it has ever done before. But it’s been done before.

So it becomes a little rote, but what saves it from being boring is the acting, especially that of Shauna McDonald as Sarah, who over the course of the film progresses from sunny to barbaric (common), and does it with a persuasiveness that is thoroughly compelling (rare). With her trauma and the pressure she’s under, there’s even the possibility that the entire experience is only in Sarah’s head. Close study of the film disproves this, but it has fun toying with the idea. Interesting how Sarah’s descent (get it?) into primal rage is so well-prepared, and how a viewer can be left sharply divided about their sympathy regarding her final actions. She’s perhaps the best horror heroine since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and The Descent shares a similar celebration of hard-edged femininity with James Cameron’s Aliens, but goes beyond that example by planting its hero in an environment dripping with female imagery – the damp, tight tunnels scream birth metaphors, and it not a coincidence that their safety in the womb-like caverns is stripped away by the appearance of white-colored predators. To liken the women and monsters to eggs and sperm is, in this case not too much of a stretch, I think. Also not coincidental: a late surge of power that occurs right after an impromptu swim in a pool of blood. Strange, how The Descent is just as graphic and gory as any other typical modern horror film, yet Marshall’s direction somehow finds a way to be elegant. Plus, there is something about a British accent that can find a way to be almost civilized in the face of death and gore, which also helps give The Descent a refined sheen.

If I have any lasting problem with The Descent, it is that it runs out of surprises too soon, although its last is not the one you’re thinking of. It becomes just a tad predictable towards the end, which is a shame, since Neil Marshall has made a film that is alive and confident. And I musn’t overlook its specific qualities—it looks great, the six personalities are entertaining and distinctive, and the screenplay resists the hypnotic sway of formula for as long as it can before finally giving in. And give the film credit for not allowing any of its all-female cast to be demoted into eye candy, which is a welcome rebuke to American films, which tend to over-sexualize everyone. It’s also refreshingly fatalistic, even when…ah, but that would be telling. (By the way: in my opinion, you should avoid the compromised “American” theatrical cut and go for the unedited British version, trust me.)

For director Neil Marshall, The Descent is his one qualified success. His other films veer from self-conciously quirky horror (Dog Soldiers) to mile-high carnage (2010’s Centurion). And lets not forget his apocalypse/war/sci-fi/action/exploitation/what-the-hell-is-this epic Doomsday, which is actually kind of fun, but impossible to justify. Marshall is definitely a film geek, and he often makes movies that are too hungry, too overstuffed with homage, too Tarantinoesque. They’re movie-movies. The Descent also has antecedents as long as a long arm, but its done with style and conviction, even when it becomes a tad routine, and it’s electric viewing, especially when watching it on a good set with a great surround system. Could it have been more? Certainly. But for what it wants to be, and what it is, it is every ounce as good as it could be, and that is no easy feat.

GRADE: B+

NOTES: A special note of attention to sound editors Matthew Collinge and Danny Sheehan (with Michael Marroussas on sound effects duty). Together, they created the entire soundscape of monsters and caves from scratch, since the film was shot on a squeaky Styrofoam set. Not only would you never know it, but if you’ve already seen the film, you may not even believe me when I tell you. But it’s true.

Also, The Descent is certainly not to be confused with 2005’s The Cave, which is a similar story told badly. And I’ve never seen the sequel 2009’s The Descent, Part II, because its existence scares me.

Also, if you’re claustrophobic, this movie is…not for you.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1979 – Alien

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1999 – The Blair Witch Project

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