Descent, The (United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A film about spelunkers going where no sane man (or woman) has gone before and running afoul of things that lurk in the deep darkness… Sound familiar? If you're thinking of a misbegotten film called The Cave, put it from your mind. That movie was flat-out stupid. This one is a creepy white-knuckle excursion into horror, where even the "boo!" moments are so well developed that they cause a jolt. It's too early in the year to coronate a movie with the title of "Scariest Movie of 2006" but, when all the corpses have been counted on New Year's Eve, The Descent will at least be near the top. For horror fans and those who love things that go bump in the night, this is one not to miss.

In front of the camera, this is a virtually man-free zone (we have one token male early in the proceedings, but he is quickly disposed of). Behind the scenes, it's a different matter, with virtually every key role being filled by a guy, including writer/director Neil Marshall. Still, it's an interesting twist to have a horror/thriller movie in which there's no testosterone to be found. That leaves plenty of room for adrenaline.

The Descent opens with a masterful prologue. We're introduced to daredevil buddies Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), and Beth (Alex Reid). They're shooting the rapids while Sarah's husband and daughter look on. (The husband can be seen as being what might be termed "inappropriately intimate" with Juno.) The trio splits up, with Sarah joining her family while Juno and Beth go separately. Tragedy ensues and we're propelled forward in time by one year.

The setting is the North Carolina Appalachians. Sarah, Juno, and Beth are together again. This time, they're joined by Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Burning), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Their goal: spend some time getting dirty in caves. Most of them think it's going to be a safe, boring journey into well-charted territory. But Juno has a surprise. She has found a new crevasse into the underworld and she wants her friends to be the first to explore it (this would also give them the naming rights). As one might expect in a movie like this, things start to go wrong. And, just when they think it couldn't get any worse… Well, to quote Luke Skywalker, "There's something alive in here?"

While the centerpiece of The Descent is undoubtedly the struggle between the albino creatures and the women, that doesn't occur until the second half of the movie. It takes 45 minutes before we catch our first glimpse of the blind carnivores. But that doesn't mean the viewer is required to endure nearly an hour of boredom. Marshall is a talented enough director that he keeps the suspense high during the early phases of the cave exploration. Cave-ins, bone-crunching falls, and the fear of dying two miles under the surface keep the level of tension cranked up. Add to that a claustrophobic atmosphere and a couple of well-placed shock tactics, and the audience is on edge by the time the first non-human flashes in front of the camera.

From a technical standpoint, one of the more interesting things Marshall does is to vary the lighting. Since the action occurs in caves that are naturally dark, we are treated to a number of sources of illumination: red flares, green glowsticks, and yellow torches. There are also views through an infrared scope. It's eerie to see the darkness peeled back to reveal a carpet of bones. Or to have the infrared scope comb across the party and spot something that doesn't belong there.

Gore-lovers will not be disappointed. The Descent is filled with blood and viscera, and there's a moment (featuring a bone fragment poking through the skin) that caused me to flinch. But the name of Marshall's game isn't grossing out the audience, it's keeping them on the edge of their seats, and he does an admirable job at that. It's refreshing to know there are still filmmakers out there who remember that horror movies are supposed to be freakish, unsettling R-rated affairs. The Descent isn't perfect, but it gets a lot of things right, and it left an impression upon me as I left the theater and headed for the dark depths of the cave they call a parking garage.

Descent, The (United Kingdom, 2005)

Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Burning, Nora-Jane Noone
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Cinematography: Sam McCurdy
Music: David Julyan
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1