The Descent Review
Six women meet up for an adventure holiday in a remote cave system. The expedition is supposed to be easy, a way to help their friend Sarah build her confidence again after a traumatic year. Once underground, the women soon find themselves trapped in unexpected surroundings. Panic starts to set in as they desperately search for an exit, pushing ever deeper into the darkness. It is only then that they notice the creatures who have been stalking them. Hungry creatures, evolved to hunt and kill...
Neil Marshall needs to take care when his new film is released in litigation-happy America. He’s more than likely to have several lawsuits flying his way for inducing claustrophobia related panic attacks, and that’s not to mention all the dry-cleaning bills for soiled trousers.
With Dog Soldiers, Marshall took us all by surprise. Here was a well-crafted British horror, something that is still all too rare, made with humour and filled with genuine scares. The Descent, despite having six female extreme sports fans in the place of six male squaddies, resists the urge to become “Bitch Soldiers”. This is an altogether nastier, more disturbing affair. The chummy giggles of the first movie soon fade away as the characters realise the danger they are in, and Marshall allows us little respite. These are ordinary women trapped in a lethal situation, and react as such. People run in panic, turn on each other, and the urge for self-preservation threatens to destroy bonds of friendship.
The Descent is a much better film than Dog Soldiers. The script is tighter, the directing more lean, and the acting is uniformly excellent. The cast have filled each character with life, making you care about each one. There are no obvious filler characters waiting to get killed off, and as a result the film feels unpredictable and dangerous. Marshall’s intelligent script feels fresh and original, giving us some disturbingly claustrophobic sequences as the women move ever deeper into the caves.
It’s to Marshall’s credit that our nerves are stretched tighter than climbing ropes before he even thinks of introducing the inhabitants of the caves. Emerging from the darkness at the worst possible time, The Crawlers are Golem’s feral, vicious, distant cousins: Savage hunters of disturbing speed and strength. Their first real meeting with the group provides one of many genuine “leap from your seat” moments, bringing gasps and screams from many in the cinema. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. Marshall augments his relentlessly tense atmosphere with a series of jolts of such ferocity that some will be unable to sit through to the conclusion.
This is also the film’s only major flaw. In the final section of the film, things have become so intense you almost relish each fright, knowing you’ll be able to relax to some extent in the ensuing battle for survival. Some of the climactic fight sequences lack some of the excitement they should have due to the viewer’s nerves being so shredded that you are forced to take any opportunity you can to relax a little.
Occasionally the lack of a big Hollywood budget shows. Some unconvincing animated bats spring to mind, as do a couple of shots in a hospital corridor, and the score is far too obviously “horror” in the early sections of the movie. However, Marshall has worked hard to put every penny of the budget onto the screen, and so convincing are the sets that it comes as a surprise to discover most of the film was studio based.
This is easily one of the best British movies in years, and up there with the finest horror flicks of this generation. Genre fans will feed hungrily from The Descent’s gushing necks and splintered bones, revelling in the winks to Fulci, Apocalypse Now and the most protracted eyeball gouging in mainstream cinema. Film students will lap up the multi-layered structure that allows the viewer to read the events of the film in a number of ways. The rest of us will cower behind our popcorn, loving every moment we spend in the dark before breaking through the exit to daylight…