Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: The Descent

The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall)

In a very short time span, writer director Neil Marshall has made quite a name for himself. With some directors more time is required for them to hone their skills and fully express themselves through the medium of film and gain a reputation. Marshall’s first film, Dog Soldiers, did him some credit, but it wasn’t until 2005 when his horror film The Descent was released that people really started to take notice. With this second outing, the Englishmen had provided some life into the horror genre at a time when many, including myself, were mostly shunning the supposedly scary motion pictures that studios were releasing.

One of Marshall’s unique qualities as a storyteller is in how he structures his plots. After seeing a few of his films, I’ve noticed that he will often start a story in one particular way, then totally shake things up about 15 minutes later and finally take the characters in one last different direction before sprinting to the finish line. I don’t know why he chooses to do this and I believe one can make the argument that his scripts suffer a little bit because of it (they might feel as though they lack a certain focus), but he often succeeds in weaving a compelling tale despite it all. The Descent is one such film in that it begins with what looks like a drama story among female friends, morphs into an underground adventure with a team of spelunkers, only to end up being a gory and claustrophobic monster nightmare tale. I typically reserve some lines for a plot synopsis to set the remainder of my reviews into context, and I will do the same this around, but with a bit more reserve. I mentioned that the film possesses something of a three act plot, but each act reserves some surprises, with each directly affecting what transpires in the next act, so you’ll have to forgive me if I come across as secretive regarding the plot.

Very generally, The Descent sees a small group of amateur and serious spelunkers go for an underground excursion into some caves somewhere in Colorado State. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is a woman still deeply affected by tragedy which befell her one year ago, Juno (McGuff. No, I’m kidding. I meant Natalie Mendoza) is a spunky and athletic girl who has seen her relationship with Sarah take a bit of a dive for some very personal reasons, and other members include a medical student named Rebecca (the gorgeous MyAnna Buring), Beth (Saskia Mulder) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) is the one member who has extensive spelunking experience and enjoys showing it off with some added flare. Their underground exploration is both exhilarating and exhausting, but the girls appear to be having a reasonably good time, with the exception of Sarah, who will sometimes enter a sad, contemplative state, her thoughts and emotions taken over by the memory of the previous year’s bitter pill. With each and every crawl and step they take to venture deeper into the dark holes, the closer they are to the caves darkest secret: something barbaric and ancient lives and eats down in the black depths.

With a script that seems to hop around quite a bit from theme to theme and from genre to genre, by the end of the film I was not under the impression of having witness unfocused plotting, but rather a director’s interesting versatility as a storyteller. It would have been one thing for one of the movie’s chapters to be decidedly weaker and of les interest than the others, but such is not the case with The Descent. The beginning, middle and end are all very well made and more than enough to keep a viewer on the edge of his or her seat. Take for example the section of the story which sees the team of women walking and crawling from one tunnel and cave to another. There is nothing spooky per say during these 25-30 minutes. What’s more, there are moments when we the viewers are privy some of the true natural beauty which can be found underground. The protagonists are in awe of what they see below and oftentimes the lighting of the caves, the source of which are the torches the women have equipped themselves with, add a mystical sense to the surroundings. One scene in which the girls take a rest to eat a little and light the red torches was especially attractive to watch. This section of The Descent does more than merely showcase some exquisite editing and lighting choices performed by Marshall and his crew (which alone is highly respectable due to the film’s limited budget), but provides some ideas as to why I would never want to go spelunking. Caves, in my humble opinion, are primarily characterized by three Ds: they are dark, damp and dangerous. Even before the film’s creepy crawlers make their presence known, Neil Marshall doesn’t shy away from heightening the tension with some fun and nerve-racking vignettes.

The director truly flexes his directorial muscles in the story’s final third once the women have gone too deep into the caves and have come face to face with their match. What follows is a powerful exercise in so many elements which grace the horror genre. Tension, lighting, fight scenes, painful and depressing deaths, twists and turns, The Descent’s final half hour is overflowing with many of the good stuff horror fans clamour for. It’s also the most entertaining portion of the movie because the protagonists (two of them at least) refuse to go down without a proper fight. Instead of having the girls picked off like docile little lambs being served to a pack of famished wolves, characters such as Sarah and Juno dig deep inside themselves and try to prove that the creatures’ underground home field advantage won’t mean much at all. When the survival instincts kick in, it’s safe to say that all bets are off. Much like in the middle portion of the movie, the cinematography was arguably the technical aspect which caught my eye the most. Because caves offer no natural light, the girls must rely on whatever torches and lights they have left, and with many of those tools giving off red or green tinges, there plenty of scenes which have a heightened nightmarish feeling to them. It’s tempting to liken some of these scenes to Dario Argento’s classic film Suspiria, which also balanced out unique, moody and captivating cinematography with a super charged gore fest. Horror movies do not require gore in order to be artistically successful, but sometimes it helps and this was one of those types.

What I found curious but ultimately rewarding was how the story hadn’t forgotten about the central relationship between Sarah and Juno. One must acknowledge that The Descent is of the horror genre, and as such if the writing is going to deliver any emotional and character-driven punches, than it will have to work for some room in the middle of all the chaos. This is probably ‘story’ and ‘character’ are often derided when discussing horror. I myself am prone to falling on both sides of the fence, but in the case of The Descent, it worked. For the finale to be satisfactory, the viewer has to accept that one year after Sarah’s tragedy, she is still affected enough to behave the way and make the decisions that she does under the extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps it was the mood, the setting, or the fact that I was having enough fun with the movie, but Sarah’s and Juno’s unbelievable journey earned its conclusion. It should be noted that The Descent exists in two separate versions, one that is referred to as the UK Cut and another referred to as the U.S. Cut, the difference being at what exact point the movie ends. For my money, the UK Cut carries more emotional weight to it. It’s both touching and depressing, if those two notions can even co-exist at all. The U.S. ending is not problematic per say, but for some reason it chooses to withhold the final 2 or 3 minutes of the UK version which award the viewer with some emotional payoff. It’s not bad, it’s just a bit unfulfilling. Regardless of the version you happen to watch, I can guarantee that you’ll be in for a pretty intense ride.


Anonymous said...

I thought this was a well made film, but found that Marshall went for too many cheap jump scares early on that made the sequences in the cave less effective because I had already been worn down by the cheap tactics. Still, once they are in the cave, it's one of the finest horror films of the decade with some strong story elements, particularly with the portrayal of females.

edgarchaput said...

@inemasights: I don't remember there being many cheap scares in the earlier parts of the film. If you are refering to the set piece when Sarah gets stuck in the tiny tunnel, I thought that was pretty intense.

The females feel like real characters (given the weird story they are living through) which was nice. I felt the script limited the jumber of cliches to a minimum. The only cliche was maybe the experienced spelunker who shows off her skills from time to time, but that wasn't anything major.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I missed it Edgar, but which version of the film did you watch?

edgarchaput said...

@Bill Thompson: In one sitting I watched the UK cut, but re-watched the final 15 minutes in the U.S. cut.