Friday, June 1, 2007

The Descent

"The Descent"

UK. 2005. Written and directed by Neil Marshall; Starring: Shauna McDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Nora-Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring and Saskia Mulder.

Rating: ★★★★

“The Descent” has already been heaped with praise in its native UK and said by one review in as the “best horror film since Alien" and this time the ads and reviews are not lying. This is one of the most tightly effective horror films in a long time. After a string of terribly cheap horror films such as “Saw” and “Hostel,” which relied on mindless exploitation of sadistic torture, here is a movie that returns to spare, minimalist storytelling to generate maximum scares.

The film invites and deserves comparison with horror classics such as “Alien” and “Jaws” because it resorts to classical style that allowed dread to build in a steady fashion and actually takes its time to develop enormous tension. In fact, this is a movie that is more frightening the less you know about it, so I would actually suggest you save reading this until later. If you do continue, I will try not to spoil the surprises in store.

The film starts with a horrific accident that leaves a woman, Sarah (Shauna McDonald) injured and her husband gruesomely killed. She is rattled by this whole ordeal particularly after she hears that her daughter does not survive the accident either. It’s quite an opening to show that the film has complete free will to start tying whatever knot it wants to make in our stomachs.

A year later, we see her driving into the Appalachian Mountains to meet with five other friends including Beth (Alex Reid), Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the one who has led all of the others on this spelunking expedition. All of the characters are skeptical about the dangers of this expedition and Juno is quite the ambiguous and mysterious character. However, beyond Sarah and Juno, the film does not really develop any of its central characters before it descends them down right into the chasm.

That is not to say the film does not make us care about the characters, as that couldn't be farther from the truth. Much like "Jaws" did not show its shark for its first hour, the film achieves our connection with the characters by spending its first hour tapping into our own fears and frustrations of entering an unknown place: claustrophobia, fear of falling, fear of the unknown, and fear of climbing accidents. And the film most effectively relies on the fear of the dark. The only sources of lighting available to these cave divers are flares and flickering flashlights and the whole film is no more lit than that. With this, the film precisely gets across that sense of dread we feel from the simple lack of light and makes the film's eventual display of horrific images immeasureably more disturbing.

The film is taut and frightening because, as Hitchcock made abundantly clear, it understands that the key to a great scare is having a buildup and then a payoff instead of having a cheapened series of the latter, which is all films like "Saw" and "Hostel" are. Before gory and gruesome deaths happen (and there are plenty of them that will turn many a stomach), it concentrates on images of various objects that humans can be impaled by such as stalactites and stalagmites. Even a series of the old “it’s only a cat” style jump scenes turns out to be a setup for a disturbing and shocking turn of events.

And once the tension lets loose, its release is well controlled with exquisitely timed shocks and twists. One is reminded of “Alien,” which also reinvented each frame by showing a new feature of the ominous creature at every successive time it appears. Much like that horror classic, this film’s horrific images are so variegated and nightmarish that the final scenes take on a truly hellish and almost mythical level.

The actresses who portray the cave climbers all inject considerable gravity to their characters. The key role goes to Shauna McDonald who excellently portrays the anxiety, courage and pain in her character as the woman who is still dealing with the past tragedy in her life. Natalie Mendoza, in the other crucial role, is appropriately ambiguous and nebulous as the adventurous spirit who has inadvertently led the rest of the pack into this hellish place. The other actresses, Reid, Noone, Buring and Mulder also inhabit their characters with believability and conviction. Most of all, the movie never makes the mistake of objectifying these women, as is standard in lesser horror films, and shows them as brave and resourceful characters who turn into strong-willed survivalists.

The writer and director is Neil Marshall, whose last film, “Dog Soldiers” was about a group of military types who start a training exercise and realize with alarm that they were soon dealing with murderous werewolves. Here, he essentially replaces the military types with six ordinary women but while that film somewhat had a campy, action-oriented style, this film, creating completely ordinary and plausible characters, is far more direct and intense and holds the viewer like a vice.

Marshall also relies on our familiar memories of past horror films. Beyond the aforementioned movies, it contains references to many of Hitchcock's classics as well as inferior horror films such as “The Blair Witch Project.” The fascination of this film is anticipating how it will turn these familiar elements, particularly the inferior ones, into a creatively new and scary polish.

Horror films induce only bad laughter or pure repulsion when they rely solely on finding creative ways to off their victims and filling the screen with buckets of blood. “The Descent,” even from its creepily simplistic title, goes back to the basics to tap into our worst nightmares and relate to our own fears at their base level with feverish energy. Hang on for the ride, if you dare.

Note: The American ending is shortened and slightly altered from the original British ending, which is more poetic.

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