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I am not a big fan of the horror genre. Many of them are just too campy or schlocky to be terrifying, too derivative of each other, or too slow and drawn out while trying to be suspenseful. Besides the first two masterpieces of the Hellraiser series and the original, read only good, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I could do without the genre completely. I don’t mention Hostel here, because as I’ve said in my review for that film, it isn’t as much a horror as a thriller told brutally. A horror film needs to have genuine jump out of your seat moments as well as creepy, dark visuals. Fortunately the buzz surrounding Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent is warranted, because going to see this movie allowed for the best time I’ve had seeing a horror flick in a dark theatre since the final fifteen minutes of The Blair Witch Project.

Marshall is definitely a storyteller. He allows time for the audience to get to know each character and facilitate a connection to them so we care about what will eventually happen, much in the vain of Ridley Scott’s opus Alien, which many compare this to. Sarah, played with a real range of emotion by Shauna Macdonald, has suffered a great loss. Her mind wanders often to visions of her manifested grief, (these moments are very effective on the scare level as well as a psychological one). Sarah’s friends decide to continue with their yearly extreme outdoor excursions, this time to a cave system, hoping to get her mind off of the darker areas of thought and into one of companionship and hope for the future. Yes, the cast of characters are pretty much the ones you’d expect: the hotshot, brash adventurer Holly; the vocal leader Juno; the English teacher, self deprecating and looking to the wellbeing of her friends Beth; the young med-student, who you know will eventually need to use her expertise for the cause, Sam; and Sam’s big sister Rebecca, who goes through the entire movie cautious until she must show her strength. All the women do a phenomenal job in their parts making them fully fleshed and real. The beauty of the film is the reality it is steeped in, this isn’t a fantasy with myth and magic; it is just a heightened world where what happens could actually have some possibility to it, as far as evolution and science play a role. Unfortunately, the realism, which caused the most suspense, knowing that maybe this could happen, eventually gives way to blood and gore. It is a shame because the abundance of blood almost took me out of the taut story; it wasn’t necessary at all as it’s not the gore causing the frights, but the conflicts shown. Subtlety works best and thankfully there is more of it than the small bursts of excess later on.

The beginning half of the movie sets up a wonderful sense of foreboding and intrigue for what is to occur. We are shown a story, an almost buddy orientated tale, with mishaps and light moments as well. While the visions Sarah sees are the main focuses for thrills, there are also many instances from nature. Thankfully we are allowed this period before the real horror is revealed, because it builds up the suspense to finally be released. The handling of the second half is for the most part just as effective as the first. Adding in the crawlers ups the stakes for sure, but Marshall doesn’t fall into any traps of the genre where he makes everyone into a hero. Each character pulls from within herself and does what she would do in that situation. What Juno does during her first foray against the creatures is uncommonly genuine. Natalie Jackson Mendoza plays the emotional range like a pro, from fear to anger to hatred to remorse. Her actions are all reactionary and I applaud the writer/director for taking it as far as he did. Mendoza is the star that I will remember most, her character was at the crux of the story; she brought them out there and her reasons for this, as revealed during its course, were not so much selfish, but apologetic. Macdonald also shines as the distraught widow trying to prove to her friends that she won’t be the adventurer that backs off first. She needs to prove to herself that she can be normal again after her tragedy. The visions allow for some mystery as to what she is seeing and hearing in the cave, and whether anything is real. There are many homages, especially with the Sarah role, including a nice Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, rising from beneath a liquid pool, and multiple mirroring of her face and hair to that of the final scream in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Also, the final frame is highly effective; that’s a vision I’m sure she will be seeing for the rest of her life.

In order for The Descent to be successful, one needs to have successful acting, emotions amped, and as many light, humorous parts to offset the brutal shocks following. Marshall seems to be one to watch in the horror rebirth happening of late. Hopefully he won’t shy away into the PG13 crap and instead stay the course to tell the story as it needs to be told. Unfortunately there did seem to be some compromise with the US release, as the ending is not the original one. Hopefully this was a decision on his part and not the producers strong-arming him. It’s a real shame when American producers belittle their own country as not being able to take a foreign film on its own merits, even one in their own language, that its end must be changed. This and Russia’s Nightwatch, which cut thirty minutes and an entire character upon stateside release, are the reasons my next DVD player will be an all-region one, so I can buy the European cuts that Hollywood says I’m too stupid to see. I will also definitely be seeking out his previous movie Dog Soldiers, to see whether this one was an aberration or a sign of things to come.

The Descent 8/10

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photography:
[1] (Left to right) Shauna Macdonald as Sarah, Nora-Jane Noone as Holly and Alex Reid as Beth in Lions Gate Films’ The Descent.
[2] Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) from THE DESCENT. Photo credit: Alex Bailey

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