|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 the harsh currents. Then, when you least expect it and out of the blue, you get a nasty little jar!
A year later and Sarah (Shauna MacDonald: THE DEBT COLLECTOR) 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 thier river rafting trio, an independent American Indian woman named Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza). They are reunited with three more 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 tamed for tourists.
Writer Director Neil Marshall (KILLING TIME, DOG SOLDIERS) fully introduces us to the women before we go to the cave, let alone all the Horror there. Marshall's tempo makes it clear 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 its interesting.
We finally get to the cave and Marshall keeps the interest up by giving us fascinating and bizarre natural scenery - an alien world that is part of our own. Once inside the cave, cramped interiors and utter darkness - caves are a darker thing than any human will ever know - is put to good effect. For the rest of the movie, our only light is headlamps, glowsticks, and the occasional flare from the cavers. On a personal note: I must point out that as a caver/spelunker who takes great care to preserve the wild 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 irreperable damage to the cave and its microscopic inhabitants that often give the cave its beauty.
But I digress.
An inopportune, but wholley believable cave in (cave-ins frequently happen in caves, hence the name), 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 acheivement in itself!
But what's important here is the Horror and this movie about the creatures in a dark cave shines. Caves are nothing but twists and turns, long narrow passages, claustrophobic tunnels, and dead ends. Combined with the utter 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 our six 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 gratuituous. For the first time in this milleneum, the gore actually makes the scares.
The largely 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.
THE DESCENT is a great movie, and judging from the American edit, is a clear classic. Horror movies are rarely this smart and stay this scary. This film will grab you!
Review © Eddie "Feo Amante" McMullen