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The Descent /

Rated: R

Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Burning, Nora Jane Noone

Directed by: Neil Marshall

Produced by: Christian Colson

Written by: Neil Marshall

Distributor: Lionsgate


     I recall watching Alexendre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes on DVD just a few weeks ago and thinking to myself "what was the point of that?" The self-proclaimed "horror" film was horrifying in that, as a viewer, I would never want to see happen to myself what happens to the characters. Still, the movie didn't offer me anything to sink my teeth into, no narrative-perspective or spooky-moments to speak of. In all of its violent pictorial nihilism, albeit well-crafted nihilism, I felt that The Hills Have Eyes epitomized everything wrong with its genre. Modern-Horror relies far too much on disturbing, shocking images and not enough on the power of the mind to imagine The Worst, as provoked by the films of Michael Haneke and (to a lesser extent) the famed-but-overrated Tobe Hooper. Neil Marshall's The Descent, among other things, proves that this filmmaking-ability is still achievable in horror. It is a different kind of film than those that the Contemporary American Public has become accustomed to expect of the genre. It introduces a fairly basic story with several cheap-thrills in tow, but builds a statement about human-nature within the confines of the desperate situation that it presents that is both pessimistic and thoughtful. Because of its ability to delve into the viewer's own rational fears in everyday life--claustrophobia, paranoia, isolation, et cetera--and vivify them to a macabre extreme, The Descent offers a chilling and surreal experience.

     The film opens to a scene in which protagonist Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is driving with her family through the woods, returning home from kayaking in nearby rapids. Their car runs into another and, in the accident, Sarah's husband and daughter die. The film then fast-forwards its focus to a year later in time, when a group of Sarah's friends (two of whom were kayaking with her before the accident) decide to take her back into the wilderness to go spelunking, figuring that it could be therapeutic for her in coming to terms with her loss. However, the entire trip goes awry when they find themselves trapped in an uncharted cave, much thanks to the clumsy daredevil-planner of the excursion, Juno (Natalie Mendoza). To add to the madness, the group discovers several half-human/half-monster beings living in the cave. These creatures have evolved to their surroundings' decrepit conditions and, despite being blind, see potential in the instinctual idea of eating their six uninvited guests alive.

     The Descent will not only surprise viewers expecting a glamorized horror-production from Hollywood, but also those used to watching gritty micro-budget slashers. Despite containing several visceral images--a scene tinted with the color of blood in the third-act springs to mind--it contains very little gore for a film of its kind. The violent predators are not nearly the scariest part of The Descent; I was far more terrified by the small caverns that the characters find themselves stuck in and the unstable terrain that they have to cross to find ways out. A scene in which one of the women nearly becomes trapped in tunnel of the cave is by far the most suspenseful in recent memory. Through such primally nerve-wracking passages, The Descent's dark tone and Lord of the Flies-esque themes regarding survival are communicated perfectly. This is a rare horror movie that audiences can connect with and, as a result, understand the protagonist's anguish towards events in her past. Writer/director Marshall's original choice of an ending (seen here), which was part of the British-release of the film, is even better in doing so than the one currently being shown in the United States, but distributor Lionsgate unfortunately thought it was too depressing for American Audiences to handle. Regardless of the note it ends on, however, The Descent proves to be a most intense reminder that the modern horror-genre still has the power to scare viewers with material beyond that which consists of mere shock and awe.

-Danny, Bucket Reviews (8.17.2006)

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