Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Descent / **** (UR)

Sarah: Shauna Macdonald
Juno: Natalie Mendoza
Beth: Alex Reid
Rebecca: Saskia Mulder
Sam: MyAnna Buring
Holly: Nora-Jane Noone

Lionsgate presents a film written and directed by Neil Marshall. Running time: 99 min. The version screened for this review is the original UK cut and is unrated by the MPAA. The film contains strong violence/gore and language.

Critics have been calling Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” “the best pure horror movie this year.” I’ve seen this phrase used by more than one writer in their praise of the film. I would take it a step further; it’s actually the best pure horror movie in many years. “The Descent” succeeds where so many Hollywood horror flicks of the week fail by providing genuinely frightening moments of terror. It tells a story that pulls you in from the opening moments with a startling shock and then proceeds to scare the dickens out of you by building tension up slowly throughout the film, then releasing it with sudden outbursts of violence.

Like many a horror flick, “The Descent” begins with personal tragedy for its heroine, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, BBC’s “MI-6”). On the way home from a rafting trip with her best friends, her husband and daughter are killed in a car accident. Her friend Beth (Alex Reid, “Last Orders”) stays to comfort her, but Juno (Natalie Mendoza, “The Great Raid”) leaves. Writer/director Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”) subtly suggests that there may have been an affair between Juno and Sarah’s husband.

A year later, Juno organizes a cave exploration trip for Sarah and Beth along with three other extreme sports women. The group is rounded out by two sisters, Rebecca (Saskia Mulder, “The Beach”), the responsible one, and Sam (MyAnna Buring, BBC’s new “Doctor Who” series) a young med student; and the reckless Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, “The Magdalene Sisters”). They are all fairly experienced spelunkers, and are under the impression that they are headed into a fairly innocuous cave. Not only is the cave of a much higher caliber of difficulty than the women expect, but once they have descended into it bowels, they discover they are far from alone down there.

Marshall does a wonderful job taking his time with the material, an art that has all but been lost in modern horror fare. After the car accident, there are no major violent events prior to the two-thirds mark of the film; but Marshall fills all that time developing the characterizations of these women, who start out as friends, but slowly begin to lose their trust in each other because of little deceptions and minor setbacks.

Marshall is well aware that his audience has come to the theater to see a horror movie, and he utilizes our expectations of shock and surprise to mesmerizing effect. As the women make their way through the cave, we are constantly checking the background for signs of something out of the ordinary. Sarah has clearly not recovered from the trauma of losing her daughter and hallucinates about her, leaving both the audience and her companions to doubt the validity of her suspicions when she begins to fear they are not alone.

Even the scenes with no apparent invasions from unseen threats are filled with tension and suspense. When the climbers come across an underground ravine and one of them tosses a rock over the ledge, Rebecca says, “Great. Now I know how far down it is,” as she proceeds to grapple across the cavern’s ceiling, running a line for the others.

When the threat of some sort of cave dweller finally becomes more than just a possibility, Marshall tactfully amps up the tension by inter-cutting the first full on sighting of a creature with a medical emergency suffered by another of the women. Bone protrusion may generally be a cheap trick to make an audience squirm, but when Marshall juxtaposes the woman screaming in pain and the general panic surrounding her against the quite solitary horror of Sarah’s first up-close glimpse of a creature, that uncomfortable squirming becomes an almost Pavlovian reaction the audience experiences every time we glimpse a creature from that point forth. And you better hope to have a good grip on your seat when the creatures do finally start to interact with the climbers, or you will find yourself somehow out of your seat with fright.

“The Descent” is not merely a good scream-inducing movie; like all great films it can be read on several different levels. Its title even has a double meaning that can be better observed in the alternate ending of the UK cut that wasn’t seen in the film’s American theatrical release. Years from now film historians will probably discuss how it is a classic because its themes parallel the sacrifices of women for their acceptance in the corporate work force or some such thing. But what reflections this film might have on society as a whole are irrelevant to the average viewer. “The Descent” will scare the hell out of you, and little else is important when a horror flick does that as well as this one.

No comments: