Note: I wrote this review on spec for a local newspaper, but to my knowledge it wasn’t published, so I thought I’d just toss it up here. Enjoy…
The television ad campaign for The Descent claim the film is “from the people who brought you Saw and Hostel,” two sadistic horror films that focus on human torture. The ads do an injustice both to fans of those films (who may not enjoy this one) and people who don’t like those films (and just might like The Descent).
The Descent is an old-fashioned monster movie with a modern horror film sensibility. It was released in Great Britain over a year ago (and is already out on DVD over there), but did so well in the UK that “the people who brought you Saw and Hostel” decided to buy the North American distribution rights and give it a theatrical release here–an honor not accorded to Marshall’s previous film, Dog Soldiers (2002), one of the better werewolf movies out there.
Unlike some recent horror films, the plot is simple: a group of women, led by the athletic and slightly nutty Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and her friend Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) head out to the Appalachian mountains to explore a popular tourist cavern. They get lost (of course). Tempers flare and people get hurt. But all that is nothing compared to the next revelation: they’re not alone in the caves.
It takes nearly an hour of the film’s brisk 99-minute running time to get to the creepy-crawlies, but Marshall maintains the suspense by playing off the psychological instabilities of the characters. One character has recently lost her husband and child in a car accident, and Marshall manages to make her grief both poignant and frightening in its manifestations. Juno has her own secrets and it’s clear her off-kilter behavior comes from inner demons she has yet to confront. There’s also Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), the gung-ho tough girl whose enthusiasm is clearly going to get her into trouble in this horror film; and Beth (Alex Reid), Sarah and Juno’s mutual friend who gets caught between the two’s personal issues.
While it might seem a bit exploitative to load up a horror movie with six women and no men, Marshall and the actors create fully-formed and very capable women (in one memorable scene, a woman crosses a chasm through nothing more than sheer arm strength, planting spikes in the cavern roof as she goes).
Even more disturbing, perhaps, than the monsters are the cavern scenes themselves. They’re a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare; the actors squeeze themselves sinuously through tiny passages, sometimes through muddy water, and face hazards such as cave-ins and hidden pits (one thing I learned from this movie was that one should never, ever run blindly through a cavern–something I suspect real cavers know quite well).
Of course, this is a horror film, so there’s a good amount of blood and gore. This isn’t a film for the squeamish. The gore occasionally goes a bit over-the-top, but for the most part it seems less gratuitous than brutally honest (i.e., a person hit with a pickaxe will bleed a lot). There’s none of the sadistic emphasis on the gore that characterizes the Saw series or Hostel.
Some horror films are made for horror fans, and most recent horror films fall into this category. But The Descent is a horror film made for everyone, the kind of horror film that an average person might enjoy if they just felt like seeing a horror film (or a monster movie). It’s a tight, scary thriller, and I hope Hollywood takes a cue from Marshall and tries putting a bit less emphasis on the gore and a bit more on cinema