Writer/Director: Neil Marshall
Starring: Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder.
“The Descent” is a smart movie in a genre where it’s not just easy, but almost standard, to be dumb. Horror films, like any kind of action-adventure movie, too often let special effects, flashy camera work and surprise plot gimmicks stomp all over plot and characterization and basic logic. Yeah, “High Tension,” you steaming pile of clichÃ©, misogyny and plot idiocy, I’m lookin’ at you. Here, Neil Marshall makes the oldest horror story — there’s something scary in the dark — fresh and thrilling.
The movie delivers the mystery, tension and terror we want in spades while skipping the numbing, often insulting genre tropes that have been blatantly mocked in the “Scary Movie” series. Hell, this is a film in which woman after woman is murdered as brutally as in any film I can recall, yet not only is it not vulnerable to charges of sexism, the film is likely to be praised for its treatment of women. The filmmaker sort of has to do well by his female cast: The only man in the movie drops out of the story in the first five minutes.
The film breaks into two parts — first we follow a group of athletic young women onto a spelunking exhibition that goes wrong. Lost in a dark, claustrophobic underworld, they face all the real-world risks and tensions that one character conveniently rattled off before they started their adventure. And the film does so well at creating tension in this wholly realistic manner that it’s almost a shame when, halfway through, the women stumble into the Creepy Monster portion of the story.
At that point, the film becomes savage, brutal and constantly startling, delivering the bloodbath thrills with deft skill. While Marshall has taken time to give us a sense of all six women, two characters stand out. Shauna MacDonald plays Sarah, still mourning the sudden death of her husband and young child, and it’s her transformation we’re most concerned with. Secondly we have the brash Juno (Natalie Mendoza), whose attempts to lead the women out of the mess she’s created magnify the crisis, but also give us a kick-ass action babe. Interestingly, Marshall sets up a subtle tension between the women, the sense that there is an uncomfortable secret driving much of their interaction. Yet the film never pays it off, and plays it so low-key that many thrill-seeking viewers might never pick up on it. The ability to know when to hold back in such a gore-soaked screamfest is part of what sets “The Descent” apart.
There are a few missteps, confusing little scenes that try to make us think there’s a different kind of supernatural horror afoot, when there just isn’t. It’s the filmmaker’s attempt to keep little thrills rolling in the early part of the film, and to give us a last jolt at the end, and while they fall a bit flat, they don’t detract much at all. The biggest fault is how good the pre-monster tension is ““ we miss it when the movie reveals itself as an all-out monster mash.
Warning to the squeamish: While the film does not lovingly fetishize the gore and violence as some movies will, it does offer just a lot of blood, guts and rapid-fire shocks. Not for the faint of heart, but very satisfying even if horror isn’t your usual cup of plasma.
FIVE DEGREES of SEPARATION
ALIEN — The poster picks out praise comparing “The Descent” to “Alien.” Both films slash the same vein, and mix drawn-out tension with intense monster violence. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is undeniably better.
The AUDITION — This utterly creepy Japanese import never cuts loose with violence like “Alien” or “Descent,” but as an atmospheric meditation on the kind of crazy evil crap you’re more likely to actually encounter in the real world, it’s just what you need to ruin your sleep for a few nights. (It’s a 1999 work you’ll find IMDB’d, phonetically returned from the Japanese as “Odishon.”)
HELLRAISER — Clive Barker’s low-budget stomach-turner ladled sadomasochism and fetishwear over the blood and guts back when that was still a fresh idea. It’s a delightfully twisted and unpleasant movie.
The SHINING — (Stephen King + Jack Nicholson) X Stanley Kubrick = Seeeeriously creepy.
NIGHTMARE on ELM STREET — Wes Craven is the poster child for the kind of film that “Scary Movie” exists to make fun of, but the first installment of the Freddy Krueger series is nothing to laugh at.