Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Descent


Spelunking Shocker is Scary, but Bottoms Out too Soon

Horror films have enjoyed quite a resurgence as of late. Ever since Scream reenergized (and satirized) the genre back in 1996, scary films have been box office gold, much as they were in the 1980’s. The main difference is that we’ve gone from the slasher film (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween franchises) to more cruelty and brutality (Saw, Hostel).

Lionsgate has been a major distributor of these recent nasties and now imports The Descent, an interesting, layered horror film from writer/director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers). It’s also very scary, and effectively disturbing for the first two-thirds of the running time. Had he been able to maintain his tension, Marshall may very well have had a modern classic on his hands. It still works, but should have been much better had it avoided typical horror film trappings.

One year after the sudden death of her husband and young daughter, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) teams up with five female friends for a therapeutic caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. When a cave-in seals off the only apparent entrance, the six must push into unknown subterannean depths in an effort to survive. Things get even worse when it appears they are not alone in this hellish cavern...

The Descent has an excellent setup that other horror filmmakers should pay attention to. Marshall immediately slaps the audience across the face with the brutal and unfair deaths of Sarah’s immediate family. It’s shocking, and sets the tone right away. Later, the six women spend a night reminiscing before their descent begins. It’s an effective (albeit brief) device that helps us to get to know these people (especially Sarah, the protagonist) before all hell breaks loose.

Once it does, the film effectively ratchets up the tension with no relief in sight. Along with cinematographer Sam McCurdy (also from Dog Soldiers), Marshall creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that seems to envelop you as well as the characters on the screen. Fears of the dark, falling, being trapped in tight spaces, and the unknown are all exploited to create a grim, crushing atmosphere. Since there are no stars in this film, you sense the possibility that no one will survive, which makes the suspense very palpable.

Then there are the scares. For the first two-thirds, this is a pretty tense experience. Things are jumping out from all corners of the screen (punctuated by the loud soundtrack), which keeps you on your seat’s edge for quite awhile. My favorite moment involved a video camera in night vision mode--Blair Witch eat your heart out! This is also a pretty gory affair, with lots of blood (including a pool of it at one point) spraying all over the place. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Unfortunately, once all the mysteries are revealed, the movie loses steam and begins to repeat itself. Marshall employs the same camera trick for almost every scare: a character looks down a passage, looks away, then back--and BOO--something pops out at you. Toward the end this just becomes tiresome since we’ve seen it so many times. We also see the oft-repeated “it’s only a dream” and “they’re not really dead” tricks that undermine the originality of what came previously.

Still, there’s a lot to admire here. The performances are all solid (especially from MacDonald and Natalie Medoza as Juno), and I appreciated the authentic feel of the climbing sequences. I liked the fact there was limited CGI work, and enjoyed the “real” prosthetic effects (grisly as they were). I also liked the depth of a screenplay that explores desperation, survival at any cost, and women turning into vicious, ice-axe wielding animals to protect themselves.

If you want to see an effective horror film, dive into The Descent. You’ll be scared you did.

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