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Editorial - Thursday, August 24, 2006
"A Very Decent 'Descent' - A Look at the theatrical release of Neil Marshall's The Descent"
Review By Matthew Dean Hill

When Neil Marshall burst onto the scene with his 2002 lycanthrope vs. the military shocker Dog Soldiers, many (including this reviewer) felt it was not only one of the very best werewolf movies in a dog's age, but that it also signalled the arrival of a major new force in UK horror filmmaking. Certainly, the relative financial and critical success of Dog Soldiers helped to re-open the floodgates for British Horror (that had been, by and large, closed since Amicus, Hammer, and Tigon stopped releasing films), ushering in what many hoped would be a new "golden age" of UK genre entertainment. But, it takes more than one movie to accomplish something like that. Now, with his film The Descent, Marshall announces that he's not just a UK director to be reckoned with, but generally a horror director whose talent is apparent and quite prodigious.

The synopsis...
Best friends Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) are weekend thrill-seekers. We join them in the midst of a fairly tame white-water rafting trip...one in a series of annual "extreme sports" trips that the friends take together. Looking on from the banks of the river are Sarah's husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll). After braving some reasonably hairy rapids, the trio pull up to the bank of the river, where Paul not only helps Juno out of the raft, but also helps her out of her helmet and life preserver; something that Sarah notices, even if only peripherally. On the way home in their own car, Paul seems distant from Sarah, and when Sarah questions him about it, Paul is distracted just long enough to allow something really, really nasty to happen. Sarah wakes up in a hospital, and learns that her husband and daughter have been killed in the car crash. Flash forward one year, where we join Sarah and Beth on the way to meet Juno (and a handful of their other female friends) for their yearly adventure outing. This time, Juno is taking them on a "caving" expedition in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia (never a good idea in a horror movie). After a night of catching up, drinking, and giggling like schoolgirls, the women set off the next morning on their adventure. Juno (ostensibly) leads them to a cave entrance...one that she tells them is well-known and pretty safe, but in reality is one that hasn't been explored by anyone...at least not for a very long time. Soon, the six women are in the cave, and having a reasonably good time of it, too. That is, until Sarah starts hearing things...and perhaps seeing things...that may or may not be there. It's not long before our six heroines are up to their necks in trouble, and not just from the treacherous nature of this hellishly dangerous cavern. Seems our intrepid ladies are not alone down there in the dark. When the shit really starts to hit the fan, old friendships are tested to their most extreme limits. With few exceptions, nobody truly trusts anybody else...a horrible predicament to be in under the already horrible circumstances. As their numbers suddenly and swiftly begin to dwindle, Sarah must fight for her life by overcoming old jealousies, frightening new enemies, and the personal demons and memories that torture her mind.

What makes The Descent such an effective film, partly, is the time Marshall spends establishing his characters. Now, characterization is an odd thing in this film...with the exception of Sarah and Juno, none of the characters are really given any kind of solid "back story", but honestly, it doesn't matter. After the first half of the film passes, and we've spent that time in the company of these ladies, their characters have been very firmly established...even if they're simply archetypes. So, when the nastiness really starts going down, we feel something for these characters. Rather than merely being cannon fodder for various accidents, and worse, they feel fleshed out, and we relate to their struggle. So, credit is due Marshall for ratcheting up the tension through a slow build; something that is sorely missing from the majority of mainstream genre efforts.

It's hard to classify the goings-on in The Descent as "realistic". There's certainly a lot going on in the film that catapults it deep into the realm of fantasy (horrific fantasy, mind you, but fantasy all the same). Still, it's one of the more "realistic" horror fantasies in recent memory. The setting? Very realistic. The situation? Very realistic. Some of the character's actions, decisions, and motivations are certainly questionable, but they're realistic too...if only because they're well within the scope of reasonable human motivations, decisions, and actions. Even the monsters are "realistic". They're not the faceless, nearly unstoppable bogeys to which we've grown so accustomed in films of this ilk. No, the "crawlers" as they're called here are as much human as they are monster. In fact, it's suggested that these are merely specialized, mutated human beings whom have adapted to their surroundings over many, many generations of living in dark caves, and through interbreeding. It's not unreasonable, from a scientific perspective, to think that humans could (and would) very well turn into something very like the "crawlers", given the "right" series of circumstances and environmental conditions. They're blind, pale, omnivorous creatures (thought they very decidely prefer fresh meat), with a highly-tuned sense of hearing. Sight would be useless to them, for the most part, so they hunt through "hearing" their prey. Even their "deformities" are reasonable. Their ears have elongated and widened somewhat compared to "normal" humans...something that has been demonstrated in countless other species whose numerous varieties have been spread out or otherwise secluded from one another, and which are therefore allowed to "evolve" to fit their individual environments. What's important to remember is that the "crawlers" are quite human, subject to the same basic limitations that hinder our heroines. Sure, they've adapted, and are quite adept at scaling the walls and ceilings of their home, but ultimately, if they fall from a great height, they splatter against rocks just like a "normal" human would. There's nothing particularly "superhuman" about them. By film's end, the line between "normal" and "crawler" has blurred somewhat. As with all battles, the winner is the side that most successfully meets the enemy on their enemy's terms...the most "adaptable" wins.

Now, the big question of the day is probably, "Yes, but is The Descent scary?" Well, it's a fair question, and honestly, I think I can go so far as to say that The Descent is probably the scariest mainstream horror film in quite a long time. It's what makes the film scary that is of real interest, I think. Sure, there are the requisite "jump" scares (objects/monsters/corpses falling quickly into frame, loud noises, et al), but there's so much more. The very nature of the setting of The Descent...the damn-near pitch black, seemingly inescapable cave...is an inherently scary place. Marshall really drives home the claustrophobic nature of the caverns in many scenes of our heroines being stuck in extra-tight places, or else dangling precariously over yawning precipices by the flimsiest of amateur climbing gear. In fact, some of the scariest moments in the film come not from the threat of being eaten by monsters, but by the very real danger that these ladies are in to begin with. Then, as mentioned before, there are the all-too-human (deformed though they may be) monsters. These suckers certainly live up to their name; crawling, leaping, scurrying to and fro like human versions of Giger's "Aliens". Because they are essentially human (and mostly male, it seems), they are much more believable in their ability to frighten us. They display alarming reasoning abilities, and while they are blind, they are nonetheless deadly hunters...especially in groups. And that unearthly, screeching howl they emit...it sends shivers down my spine even now.

The fact that all of the significant characters in The Descent are thirty-something women has been discussed to one degree or another in many reviews, and it will continue to be discussed for a long time. This wasn't merely an aesthetic choice on Neil Marshall's part, though. This is, at its core, the story of a group of women being forced, through whatever machinations, to come to terms with some cold, hard facts. Among these life-lessons are that they aren't getting any younger. Aging, both physical and emotional ("wisening", if you will), play a very distinct part in the motivations of these women. Some of them (ok, most of them) are none-too-willing to pack it in and give up on being young, adventurous types just yet. Some of them, we feel, are starting to understand that, while they are still "young", aren't exactly the spring chickens they once were. Then, there's the bitter truth that friends, even lifelong friends, can grow apart. Some of these ladies have grown apart to the extent that they no longer truly know each other. They can no longer predict one another's motivations and actions. They are independent creatures, and as such, they are unpredictable, and like most people, unreliable. While this might seem to be a rather cynical position for a young male director to take, it's wholly valid in this context. The unpredictable nature of aging and friendship (and human nature) is the whole ever-fuckin' point of the movie. Like a gender-reversed version of Carpenter's The Thing, we've got a bunch of fairly likeable but ultimately disparate personalities crammed into a claustrophobic situation, and pursued by not only nasty monsters, but the inherent paranoia and distrust that goes along with being human. It's not a stretch to say that that's what The Descent is about; this isn't some obscured, secondary symbolic metaphor that's tucked deep within the folds of the story. No, The Descent wears this fact on its sleeve. And that's some scary shit, right there.

Some have compared The Descent to any number of other films; some horror, some not. That list includes John Boorman's Deliverance, last year's clunker The Cave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and others. Certainly, there are thematic similarities between The Descent and each of those films. Notably, The Descent and Deliverance share the base concept of a group of "city folk" travelling to a remote Appalachian locale for some "extreme sports", only to run afoul of not only nasty locals (if you can consider the "crawlers" to be locals) and some particularly nasty environmental conditions. Likewise, The Cave (ostensibly) tells the tale of a group of people entering a cave and running afoul of some nasty monsters...though The Cave's subterranean CGI denizens are far more fanciful and ridiculous than The Descent's cave-dwelling mutants. Picnic at Hanging Rock's characters venture into the outback for the titular picnic, whereupon they are beset by something and they simply disappear...pre-Blair Witch-style. So, it's easy...too easy perhaps...to find similarities between this film and so many others. However, the similarities pretty much end there. The Descent stands on its own, and while it certainly draws some concepts from literature and other films, it's a relatively unique and wholly engaging take on the fairly shopworn premise of "fish out of water" horror tales.

So, is it "all good"? No...nothing is ever completely without flaws. Depending on your perspective, there are some seriously questionable lapses in continuity and some details that are, shall we say, rather suspect. For instance, Juno, who seems to be the "most experienced" climber/cave explorer of the bunch, is reasonably well-equipped. As such, she's got at her disposal a plethora of cool little climbing tools for various situations; clamps, ropes, hooks, picks, and so on. One piece of equipment that features extremely prominently in the course of the movie is, to these eyes, an scythe-shaped handheld ice pickaxe. Now, what Juno is doing carrying around a tool that would be completely useless on anything besides ice is beyond me. Still, it's a cool-looking (and, as it turns out, quite deadly) tool. I'll be the first to admit that I'm neither a spelunker nor a rock climber, and as such, I don't have any real perspective on whether or not our heroine's methods are accurate or reasonable. From what I understand, though, avid rock climbers around the globe have watched The Descent with so much amusement at the blatant incorrectness of the way their beloved sport is portrayed as to ruin the movie for them. Luckily, I didn't have that problem. That's clearly a "niche" audience, so I'm not too worried about it. All I know is that the rock climbing sequences look sufficiently realistic and dangerous, and are therefore fine with me in this context. Whatever. I can't really think of any other major flaws in The Descent. It took its time setting up not only the characters, but also the setting, and thus it is wholly effective in slowly and completely immersing the viewer into its world.

Now, I've been in possession for some time an imported DVD copy of The Descent, which contains the "uncut" or "un-messed-around-with" version of the film as originally seen last year upon its UK release. I resisted watching the "full version" until I was able to see the stateside theatrical version in the theater. I (correctly) felt that in order to do the theatrical release of The Descent anything approaching justice, I would need to be as unspoiled as possible. Boy, am I glad I resisted. After all, that DVD has been sitting there for a while just begging to be watched. A lot of talk has surrounded the differences between these two versions. Really, there is only one difference. Up until the last minute of the movie, as far as I can tell, the two versions are literally identical, with the same gore and violence. So, don't worry folks...if you live in the USA, you're not getting screwed out of any of the red stuff (which is quite plentiful). Without spoiling either version of the film for those of you whom have yet to see your respectively available version, I will say only that the unexpurgated UK version, which runs about one minute longer than the US release, is by far the superior of the two. I'm afraid I can't be much more specific than that, lest the whole shebang be spoiled for the lot of you. Suffice it to say that in that last minute, the entire tone of the movie is changed, and the fate of at least one character becomes much, much more clear. From what I've read, Lion's Gate...the Stateside distributor of The Descent...felt that the original ending was far too downbeat and/or disturbing for mainstream American audiences. I'll play devil's advocate for a moment and suggest that they might have been correct. The "real" ending is certainly more disturbing, and it might have been too much for some people. But, it's a fucking horror movie, after all. Open comment to Lion's Gate: when the time comes and you inevitably release the two separate versions of The Descent on DVD (the "theatrical version" and the "uncut version"), please make sure that you spend more of your seemingly endless marketing dollars on promoting the "uncut" version with the original ending, as it's the version that everyone is going to want to buy in the first place. In fact, you should release the two versions in the same package...and please, for the love of all that is sacred in the horror world, do not include the original ending as a mere "deleted scene", as that just wouldn't do it justice. There. I've said it.

Whew. The Descent is a damned fine film, not just a damned fine horror film. At the risk of spewing sheer hyperbole, it's the best theatrical release I've seen all year. Some people are going to cry "derivative", and will therefore not give The Descent the chance that it deserves, but it'll be their loss. I'm still not sure if Neil Marshall is the much-touted savior of UK horror cinema, but I do know that he's crafted a supremely scary, enjoyable, wickedly cool horror film that, to me, ranks among the very best mainstream horrors of the last 20 years. Now slap down your eight bucks and see it! But, write to Lion's Gate and tell them that you want the full version. It really is worth it.

- Matthew Dean Hill

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