Thursday, August 3, 2006
There’s no shortage of horror movies these days. And it makes sense. From a business perspective, they’re pretty safe bets. They cost very little to make, have a built-in demographic (thanks, teens and tweens) and do alright oversees, often turning a tidy profit on a reasonably small investment, and sometimes turning little-known filmmakers into hot commodities. But most horror movies are synonymous with serial-killer movies nowadays. What passes for horror is everything from the Saw franchise to The Devil’s Rejects. It’s rare that one of these films is truly scary—more often than not, such flicks are just an exercise in body counting and making people dead.
So it’s a pleasant surprise when a movie comes along that delivers both chills and thrills and manages to stay away from the living undead and the latest deranged jerk with a sharp object. Neil Marshall’s The Descent is still, above all things, a horror movie—the premise, after all, is six hotties facing pasty mutants while trapped two miles underground—but as horror movies go, it delivers on two different fronts, offering some truly heart-in-the-throat moments alongside the requisite blood and gore.
It all begins as Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) wrap up a high-octane white-water rafting trip. Shortly after saying goodbye to her chums, Sarah suffers a horrific accident, leaving her emotionally devastated. A year later, Juno organizes a caving trip in the Appalachians, ostensibly to cheer up her friend, so the trio, joined by three more 20-something cuties, rappel their way deep into a subterranean cavern, unaware that Juno, a thrill-seeking wannabe X-gamer, has dropped them into a previously unexplored underground labyrinth. This truth comes after a cave-in that, naturally, cuts off the only escape route and drives them deeper underground in search of another way out. Sadly, they’ve stumbled into the only cave system that contains a nasty tribe of cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers (rural C.H.U.D., that is), who are only too happy to have their latest meal deliver itself, warm and nice to look at, directly to their larder. Not surprisingly, the sextet are separated and left to fend off the blind, nasty crawlers with just their wits and rock axes.
Marshall offers up two kinds of creepy in The Descent. There’s the simple, terrifying reality of being trapped underground, virtually buried alive, and there’s the potential for having your guts ripped out and eaten by C.H.U.D. The entire picture has a dark, claustrophobic feel, while the icky baddies (called “crawlers” in the credits) are nasty and unsettling in their blind, Golem-like way, and Marshall shows again, as he did in his 2002 werewolf flick Dog Soldiers, that he has a way of getting a lot out of a small budget, creating a minimalist, tightly wound piece of work and taking advantage of the opportunities that have come along with digital video and CGI. He gives the movie a gritty, oily feel, embracing the genre and allowing his heroine, Sarah, to tap into her mental anguish and go from zero to Sigourney Weaver in under a minute, all the while paying homage to horror films from days gone by (think Carrie and Alien).
Best of all, The Descent has moments that are genuinely scary. Marshall doesn’t even attempt to explain the history behind this lost tribe, keeping the story and the action close to the surface, and it’s to his credit—any explanation for what is a preposterous situation would just fall flat.
The Descent has already come and gone in its native United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, and, by all accounts, the final moments have been changed slightly for the American audience (Marshall’s not well known for the standard happy ending). That’s not to say that there’s sunshine and roses when The Descent finally breaks through to the surface, but horror purists will need to wait for the DVD to see what the international horror community has already seen, as well as some other alternatives.
But even with that change, The Descent barely allows its audience to come up for air. It would not, perhaps, be considered a great movie, but it is definitely good horror. Let’s reiterate—a horror movie is exactly what it is, and if that isn’t your cup of tea, you’re advised to stay above ground. On the other hand, if it is, come on in—the bloody water down in the cave is just fine.
THE DESCENT ( * * * )
Directed by Neil Marshall. • Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn and Molly Kayll. • R, 99 min. • At the Lighthouse Cinemas, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.