“The 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 clich’d 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.
Neil Marshall (director) / Neil Marshall (screenplay)
CAST: MyAnna Buring …. Sam
Natalie Jackson Mendoza …. Juno
Molly Kayll …. Jessica
Shauna Macdonald …. Sarah
Oliver Milburn …. Paul
Saskia Mulder …. Rebecca
Nora-Jane Noone …. Holly
Alex Reid …. Beth