Descent" is director Neil Marshall's follow to his cult hit "Dog
Soldiers" and sees him return once more to the genre in an attempt to
maintain the current British revival. Whilst "Soldiers" was a cheap
and cheerful gore fest, Marshall takes a far more serious approach with
"The Descent", delivering a startling and intense film that combines
visceral shocks with punishing suspense. Although he relies upon a simple,
time-honoured concept, Marshall achieves the rare feat of tapping into something
truly primal with a brutal and at times nihilistic tale, not only of survival,
but also of evolution and rebirth. The result is one of the best horror films of
the last few years, and one which deserves to lift the director into the highest
ranks of the genre.
The plot is simple and instantly recognisable -- a
group of female friends go caving in the wilderness and, after being
trapped by a rock fall, are set upon by flesh-hungry creatures. Marshall
(who also scripted) populates this familiar scenario with ambiguous,
well-written characters, setting up a series of complex, strained
relationships from which he wrings every possible drop of tension once
things start to go wrong. The result is a sense of depth and gritty
realism, and the viewer genuinely feels for the believable characters,
making their ordeal all the more terrifying. This is heightened by the
fact that quite early on, and in shocking fashion, Marshall makes it
clear that he is all too willing to kill off any member of, or perhaps
the entire, cast.
It's also very refreshing to see a genre film with
a set of strong, female protagonists. "The Descent" is also
devoid of the usual clichéd inclusion of cheap romance, or the reliance
on male assistance. Although the characters' sex is never made an issue,
Marshall does explore some interesting themes, and the catacombs of the
horror setting make for an intriguingly womb-like atmosphere.
"The Descent" is also somewhat reminiscent of
the early works of John Carpenter, in particular "Halloween"
(an impression accentuated by the music, which is rather derivative of
Ennio Morricone's score for "The
Thing"). As with that classic film, "The Descent" is
an uncluttered experience of pure horror, freed from the teen-friendly
conventions and unnecessary distractions of most modern horror films.
It's also tight and gruelling, with dark suggestions lurking beneath its
deceptively elementary concept, which demand further analysis.
Marshall's direction has improved considerably since
his debut, and here he displays a far more measured approach, taking his
time and allowing the suspense to build naturally rather than cashing in
on any premature exposures of the film's dark heart. He makes impeccable
use of the cave settings, generating an at times unbearable sense of
claustrophobia which makes the viewer feel every inch of the characters'
growing desperation. His use of colour is exemplary, and rather than
relying on simple torchlight, he throws in a rich palette of greens,
reds and blues, adding an almost other-worldly look to the subterranean
landscape. Touches like these, as well as Marshall's clever use of
shadows, gives the film a strong visual impact, and makes it deserving
to be seen on the big screen.
The film is tautly paced, and
Marshall times the shocks and action scenes perfectly, never overplaying
his hand during the first half, gradually allowing the viewer to feel
trapped along with the characters before unleashing chaos and bloody
panic as the creatures attack. By using shaky, handheld camera work, he
manages to capture the sudden fury of these assaults, and their
unpredictable timing leaves the viewer on edge throughout. As well as
relentlessly terrifying, "The Descent" is unabashedly bloody,
and not for the weak of stomach. Marshall never shies away from the gory
details, whether showing broken bones or half eaten intestines, and in
the latter scenes he really allows the viscera to fly.
However, none of the many head smashings, eye gougings
or throat rippings feel gratuitous, mainly due to Marshall's honest,
down to earth take on the material. In fact, the film as a whole is not
a monster movie in the traditional meaning, and Marshall never allows
the viewer to forget that it is, in the purest sense, a story about
survival. It is this human element which makes "The Descent"
not only an exhilarating, heart pounding film of the highest order, but
the best that the genre has produced in recent memory.