Perhaps it would be wrong to suggest that the British horror film has come back to life (especially as, recently, the lacklustre CREEP (2004) hammered one more nail in the coffin), but Neil Marshall’s admittedly flawed THE DESCENT at least proves there may be some life in the old corpse yet.
Pot holing and horror are, on the face of it, unlikely bedfellows, but THE DESCENT makes the best of combining claustrophobia and nasties lurking in the dark. To be honest, being trapped in an airless dark hole not much bigger than my own body would be, possibly, one of my least favourite leisure activities – the scope for Marshall to scare me half to death was immense. After staggering, blinking into the dazzling July sunshine, I think he’s half succeeded. That’s only half, mind you.
THE DESCENT’s wafer thin storyline has a group of twenty/thirty-something women who meet each year to face danger through extreme sports. It’s after one of these excursions when three of the group, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) finish up white-water rafting in Scotland that ironic tragedy strikes, when her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) & young daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) are killed in a car accident just after they pick her up. Sarah survives, but is understandably distraught.
Flash forward a year, and Beth and Sarah have made their way to the Chattanooga National Park, in the Appalachian Mountains, to meet up with Juno as a way to escape Sarah’s demons. Juno has organized a pot-holing expedition to the ‘grade two’ Boreham Caves. The group meet at a remote cabin in the woods and are joined by Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) & Sam (MyAnna Buring). Sarah tries to make the best of it, but even here she’s haunted by her demons and – in one of the film’s best jump scenes – her daughter’s demise is momentarily recreated in the dark of the night.
Come the morning, the group head off into the deep of the woods; hiking until they come across a huge hole in the ground, which leads down into darkness. One of them lists the delights of pot-holing: claustrophobia; dehydration; hallucinations; panic attacks etc – just in case they weren’t already in the mood. So, down they go into the unknown. Things appear to be going well, as they survey the strange shapes and shadows thrown up in the caverns, but events take a turn for the unfortunate when, as a result of a cave-in, they find themselves cut-off from the way they came in. Things take an even more unfortunate turn when Juno admits they aren’t at the cave system she had originally planned – after deciding it was too easy she had switched to a set of previously unchartered tunnels. Things go from bad to worse when they discover evidence of a previous expedition: something that only momentarily buoys their spirits when they realise that these caves wouldn’t have remained unnamed if these previous explorers had made their way out alive! And, if that weren’t enough, they aren’t alone down there …
Perhaps I should make it clear, THE DESCENT is no slasher flick. It owes more to ALIENS than it does to HALLOWEEN, that’s for sure. However, there’s more than enough chasing through dark corridors and effective boo! scenes to at least warrant the attention of any self-respecting visitor to HYSTERIA LIVES! Plus, given all those miner’s helmets I couldn’t help but get flashes back to MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981).
Considering the fact that the trailer makes it fairly obvious that the group is facing some kind of monster down, way down, below that it’s not much of a spoiler – more of a given. As I mentioned before, the idea of combining nasty monsters and confined spaces is inspired. If you think of a cross between a maggot, a bat and a human you’ll be part of the way there. The thing is, there’s lots of the buggers, crawling along the walls; ready to bite out the neck of any unsuspecting pot-holer. The monsters are thankfully CGI free; good old-fashioned latex, and, thanks to some assured misdirection from Marshall they are for the most part scary apparitions half-glimpsed in the light thrown off from the group’s head lamps.
Unfortunately, given the fact that the film is a reassuring latex-fest it’s all the more disappointing that when CGI does raise its ugly head it does so in such an obtrusive and unconvincing manner. Marshall has made no secret of the fact that THE DESCENT was a hurried through post-production, in an effort to beat several other similar movies to the punch. This shows, especially in a few badly composited fx shots – and the less said about the patently phony bat sequence the better! If this was the film’s only problem then it would be forgivable (God knows we’ve all sat through dodgy fx sequences – and sometimes that’s all part of the charm), but Marshal’s film also suffers from some muddied characterization. The main three characters are fairly well painted, but whilst there’s no bad performances in the movie the other actresses find it a thankless task to differentiate themselves in the murk of the underground caverns.
Whilst Marshall handles much of the build up expertly – and he’s a natural at making the audience jumping out of their skins – but strangely, things fall apart somewhat during some of the action sequences. It doesn’t help that Marshall cuts much of the violence and attacks so quickly as it would induce epilepsy in lesser mortals. Perversely, given the setting, Marshall fails to have a scene that combines the extreme claustrophobia of the crawlspaces and an attack from the monsters - just imagine the tension of worming your way through a hole not much bigger than your body with one of those things inches behind you! At least – gorehounds will be pleased to hear – when the blood runs, it runs in rivers.
Ultimately, whilst it is certainly flawed, Marshall is to be applauded for making a balls out, fierce and violent British horror flick (gone is the humour from his first genre movie – the werewolf opus, DOG SOILDIERS (2003)) – and the downbeat ending is a nice touch - both touching and chilling.
THE DESCENT is a welcome addition, and it could kick start the British horror renaissance yet.
female:7 / male:1
1) Female impaled on spikes
2) Male impaled on spikes
3) Female has her throat bitten out
4) Female stabbed through neck and hit over the head with a rock
5) Female has throat bitten out
6) Female disemboweled
7) Female killed off-screen
8) Female killed off-screen