Dir/scr: Neil Marshall.UK. 2005. 96mins.
The Descent, Neil Marshall's follow-up to 2002 hit DogSoldiers, is superior British genre fare: unashamedly gory but handsomelycrafted and inventive too, and with some gallows humour to leaven the moreextreme moments. Marshall's influences are wide-ranging. He has pitched thefilm as 'Deliverance goes underground', but he seems inspired in equalmeasure by The Shining, Carrie and even Alien.
Whatever the borrowings, thefilm is coherent and tightly focused. Though the dialogue in the early scenesis a little tin-eared, Marshall never loses sight of characterisation. Nor doeshe rely solely on shock tactics.
The first half of the film,in which the women explorers get stuck in a cave in a remote mountain range,concentrates on psychology and suspense. Only mid-way through, when the"crawlers" first put in an appearance, does the Grand Guignolbloodletting start in earnest.
Already sold widelythroughout the world by Pathe International (including a US sale to Lions Gate),The Descent is a rarity: a British film which looks bound to go downwell away from home. Not only should it appeal to the young audiences who'vebeen lapping up horror in recent years. With its strong, self-reliant femaleprotagonists and vivid characterisation, it might also lure more mainstreamviewers. Theatrical prospects are reasonable enough, but it's on DVD that thefilm should really make a killing.
The storytelling begins inrelatively strait-laced fashion with the women on a white-water trip. Only theexaggerated rumbling of the water hints at the calamities ahead. Early on, thisseems to be shaping as a drama about the friendship and rivalry between thewomen. A horrific car crash and some nightmarish sequences inside a hospitalchange the mood, but the build-up is deliberately slow.
We see the women comingtogether for their caving trip in a cabin in Canada. Little tensions andrivalries are immediately obvious. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is stilltraumatised by the memory of the car crash. There are hints that the teamresent the egotism of their self-appointed leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza.)
The mood of unease builds aswe see portents of the horrors to come. Just before they descend into the cave,the women spot crows chewing on a stag's carcass. They notice claw marks onrocks. "No one has ever been down here before," we're told as theyclamber into the bowels of the earth. As they (inevitably) become lost,Marshall plays on age-old fears of being buried alive.
At this stage, Marshall isplaying on suspense. The one truly gory and uncomfortable moment during thisprelude comes when a woman falls and breaks her leg and we're shown the boneprotruding through the flesh.
A film set almost entirelyunderground risks becoming murky and claustrophobic. However, The Descentbenefits from some ingenious production design. Sam McCurdy's cinematographyplays up the unlikely beauty of the surroundings, which we see lit by theflares the women let off to establish where they are.
The plotting is a littlecontrived. As if in deference to Gary Sherman's Death Line (1972), withits plague-ravaged cannibals in the deeper recesses of the London Underground,Marshall creates his own breed of near-human cave dwellers. Bald, slitheringcreatures which hang upside down, these look like a cross between Max Schreck'sverminous Nosferatu and over-sized Gremlins. At first, it is hinted that theymight be projections of Sarah's imagination as she struggles to cope with hergrief over the loss of her daughter.
Having begun the film inrestrained fashion, Marshall soon lets these "crawlers" loose. Thestorytelling style changes radically as the bloodletting begins in earnest. Thesequences in which the cavers try to fight off their attackers are shot inchoppy and frenetic fashion. There are literally pools of blood and mountainsof bones. Some of the scenes are so extreme that they teeter on the edge of thekind of lurid comedy Peter Jackson explored in his 1987 cult classic, BadTaste. In adversity, the women are every bit as violent as theirassailants.
Nonetheless, Marshall neverloses sight of character. We're always aware of the rivalry between Sarah(strongly played by Macdonald) and Juno (a character in similar mould toSigourney Weaver in Alien). Nor do we forget about the grief and angerSarah still feels.
At a time when low-budgetBritish horror is beginning to flood the market, The Descent stands out.It's a genre picture and doesn't pretend to be anything otherwise, but hasenergy and inventiveness in abundance. Despite the success of Dog Soldiers,Marshall had to wait almost four years to make it. British horror aficionadoswill be hoping that there is not such a long lull before his next feature.
Nora Jane Noone