Have you ever had to wait in an aggravatingly long line for a concert or a ride at an amusement park? But the show or ride made up for it, because it was that good? Then you'll know how I felt watching THE DESCENT.
THE DESCENT certainly takes it sweet ass time getting to the main story, and that's something I'm seeing more of these days in movies like WOLF CREEK and HOSTEL. Actually, it can be a good thing. I'm not exclusively a gore-hound and I've got no problem getting involved in the characters who are about to meet their Horror and doom - just so long as there is story to the characterization and not a lot of dramatic filler.
Watching THE DESCENT took me by surprise more than a few times. It starts with a white water river rafting scene that takes place in Scotland, where three friends - all women - negotiate currents to get to their destination. There is interest here, but then you find out that this entire scene has very little to do with the movie.
Then, when you least expect it and out of the blue, you get a nasty little jar!
So does Sarah (Shauna MacDonald: THE DEBT COLLECTOR), who, a year later, is still trying to get over her loss. She follows her friend, Beth (Alex Reid: ARACHNID), one of the women who was with her on the rafting trip, to the U.S. and the Appalachian Mountains. There they meet up with the third part of the earlier river rafting trio, Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and three other women, many of whom are old friends of the trio whom we haven't met, up to this point. Juno has brought everyone together for a new expedition: a wild cave in the Appalachian mountains. Wild caves are those caves that haven't been made safe with steps, guardrails and such. You have to bring gear and safety equipment and be prepared for anything.
Except in this cave, there is more anything than anything the women had imagined.
Writer Director Neil Marshall (KILLING TIME, DOG SOLDIERS) takes his time and then some just getting us to the cave, let alone all the Horror there. Then again, Marshall makes it clear in his pacing that he could give a good golly damn about your fruit fly patience. If you want dessert, you'll have to eat your dinner. Personally, I like the choice. We get an interaction and dynamic between all of the women that is far from dull. It's not Horror, but it's interesting.
We finally get to the cave and Marshall keeps the interest up by giving us cramped vistas of the interior of a cave. He makes it clear that caves are utterly dark - the darkest thing any human will ever know. The rest of the movie is lit entirely by the headlamps of the cavers, their very dim glow sticks, or the occassional flare. On a personal note: I must point out though, as a caver who takes great care to preserve the caverns I explore, you don't go tossing flares around the interior of a cave. The chemicals in the smoke, as well as the heat, do damage to the cave and its microscopic inhabitants that often give the cave its beauty.
But I digress.
An inopportune, but wholly believable, cave in (cave-ins frequently happen in caves) blocks the group from returning the way they came and forces them to look for an alternate route back to the surface. Soon after, Merry Mishaps occur.
That there are unknown, lethal creatures that live in the cave is a given from the trailer. What makes this movie smarter than, say, THE CAVE, is the fact that the varmint's ability to live in absolute darkness, reproduce, have some semblance of varmint society, as well as a food source (damn scarce for large cave creatures), is covered in a way that is not only logical, but adds to the Horror. What's more, the entire explanation is done with the economy of a handful of seconds, all Show Don't Tell, which these days, is an achievement in itself!
But what's important here is the Horror and this movie about a dark cave shines. Caves are nothing but twists and turns, long narrow passages, claustrophobic tunnels, and dead ends. Combined with the darkness and the fact that the varmints who dwell inside are in their environment, and you have jumps at any given moment. The pressure of trying to make their way to safety, just within a cave alone, is harrowing, combine that with creatures that are hunting them for food and you've got a horrifying movie.
Gore abounds in THE DESCENT, and yet it isn't gratuitous. For the first time in this millennium, the gore actually makes the scares.
The almost all female cast also sets THE DESCENT apart from most Horror movies where all the guys get killed off first and if so much as one guy survives without saving the girl, then the movie is branded misogynistic.
Big time kudos go to Neil Marshall, whose DOG SOLDIERS got undeserved short shrift in the U.S. by distributors and the same may go for THE DESCENT. This film is already off theaters world wide, where it did quite well, and is on Special Edition double DVD sets in the UK.
THE DESCENT is a great movie, and while I wouldn't call it a classic*, horror rarely gets this smart and stays this scary. This film will grab you!
Four Shriek Girls.
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