dir: Neil Marshall
Decent horror flicks are few and far between. The Descent is a decent descent into both the earth and the murky depths of the human soul, descending as it does from done-to-death horror staples, but remade in such a way as to make it more than an exercise in repetition.
When you hear a premise like ‘Six women go on a cave expedition that goes horribly wrong”, the first thing you expect, when you’ve seen as many trashy flicks as I have, is that it’ll mostly be about scantily clad women getting their tops wet and/or off, writhing around with each other in between pillow fights, pedicures and giving each other massages and drunken fistings.
Or, it’d be about women banding together to fight off predatory men, strengthen the bonds of sisterhood and to affirm that the Thelmas and Louises are doing it for themselves, or to themselves, or each other, in between teary arguments and lots of chocolate eating.
Neither, fortunately or unfortunately, apply here. This is played as a straight horror flick, with no knowing nods to the audience, and a grim and claustrophobic aesthetic that permeates throughout. It also doesn’t stint on the gore, for those that like their horror gruesome and bloody.
Marshall’s previous flick was the low budget Dog Soldiers, which many loved and some hated because they were expecting something more from a flick about werewolves. As a form of progress, Marshall gets more serious and makes a consistently better flick for his second turn at bat.
In the opening few minutes, we see three women white-water rafting, as one of their husbands and their daughter look on. The three women, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) are clearly Action Women. Soon after, Sarah’s husband and daughter die in a nasty (almost comically nasty) car accident.
If something happens in the first three minutes, you can’t really call it a spoiler. Anyway, the story jumps forward a year, as the three women are joined by three others to go on a spelunking expedition in some caves in the Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina. Cue the twanging of duelling banjos…
Spelunking is such a cool word. All it means is to wander around inside caves. It sounds harmless. Pleasant, even.
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone who spelunks that it’s considered to be one of the more dangerous pastimes one can enjoy, up there with skydiving, big game hunting and karaoke. Lots of people die whilst spelunking. Or get testy when they run out of lip gloss, whichever comes first.
Our heroines, who aren’t really that well defined character-wise, have clearly done this kind of thing before. They’re not university-age tank top wearing neophytes begging to die at the hands of an avoidable accident.
Our main ones are Sarah, Juno and Beth. They have pretty much one trait to differentiate them from each other. Sarah is depressed and still in mourning over the loss of her husband and child. Beth’s reason for existing is to try to look after Sarah. Juno, well, Juno is something a bit more complicated than that. In a movie that doesn’t need it, she has a different agenda from that of the people around her.
No-one seems to like Juno at all. I can’t remember why she was friends with these people, but none of them can stand her. I guess most large groups of friends have at least one member who generally makes the others roll their eyes in unison every now and then. Out of the group, she’s also the only one with an American accent, despite being, I think, Australian.
They might dislike her, but I thought she was great. Cute and nasty, but not in an obvious way. Despite the fact that she isn’t the main character (that would be the widow Sarah), she gets more screen time and dialogue than almost anyone else.
The women get lost in a newly discovered and unmapped cavern, led there by Juno, and use all their skills and resources to try to find a way out. This involves squeezing in and out of extremely tight places, going underwater, and traversing over abyssal depths in order to continue along their path using rock climbing gear and some pretty extreme stretches. It’s pitch black as well, since they’re kilometres below the surface, so their patch is illuminated by torches, helmet lights and flares.
As you would expect, things get pretty tense. The director’s approach to the fundamentals of how these experienced women deal with their obstacles is refreshing because it is sensible. Instead of heroic moments where one person saves everyone by jumping out of the way of an exploding fireball or jumping on a grenade, they solve things the way that you could reasonably expect an experienced and intelligent person would.
Of course, once the real danger of being trapped in these caves is revealed, in the form of some very vicious and hungry, blind, Gollum-like creatures, none of those real world action adventure skills count for a pinch of shit. What counts now is running like crazy or adapting ones’ feelings about killing.
To avoid spoiling anything (as if there are many ways a scenario like this can go), though it uses an old template (Aliens), the film delivers its action, its scares, its surprises and its extreme gore in ways that avoid the taint of being branded as cliché. Wow, what a convoluted sentence that was. What I’m saying is, I didn’t feel like I’d seen it all before whilst watching this flick, despite the fact that I have seen it all before.
The environment looks genuinely hostile and foreboding, the situation is genuinely scary (a plus for a horror flick, I think you’ll agree), and whilst it’s obviously dark most of the time, they compensate well with the use of light to increase the tension.
Some of the stuff that happens in this flick, barring some of the actual gory deaths, took me by surprise, and it is rare for such a flick to surprise me. I think the emphasis on the three main women, the strange little mystery that arises between them, and the terrifying transformation one of them undergoes, all combine together to elevate this flick above standard horror fare.
And it is most certainly a horror flick, make no mistake about that. Well made, extremely bloody, well realised and, at times, shocking. I applaud the director and his production team, and look forward to their next flick. The Descent delivers.
As a final point, I got to see this as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it won’t be released until later in the year (in Australia, at least, it’s been out in the UK since last year, and it’s just been released in the States this week). So, resist the downloading impulse. It’ll be much nastier on the silver screen.
8 times you’d never find me deep down underground for all the leprechaun gold in China out of 10.
“Hey, there's something down here” – you don’t say, The Descent