Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Descent

Director: Neil Marshall
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora Jane-Noone
Running Time: 99 min.

Rating: Unrated

*** (out of ****)

They don't make horror movies like they used to. Or at least so I thought until I saw this one. The Descent is far from a perfect film, but it accomplishes something no horror movie has managed to do in years: it actually scares you. Originally released in the U.K. to rave reviews and incredible box office in 2005, writer/director Neil Marshall's claustrophobic thriller hit the U.S. This past summer and was praised by audiences and critics alike as a horror masterpiece. While I wouldn't go that far, I will say this movie is extremely well made and demonstrates a kind of intelligence that's sorely lacking in most horror movies made today. In a way, the movie is almost a throw back to the horror films of the seventies, where the main objective was to torture you with suspense, then pick and choose your openings to deliver just the right amount of thrills and gore. It's not what you show, but what you don't and how. So then when you finally do show something, it makes an impact. Marshall understands this lost art and aspiring filmmakers could watch The Descent and take notes. For the most part, this is how it should be done. While the film starts very slow and unassuming, it just keeps building until the last 45 minutes to an hour terrifies the hell out of you. I just read that Stephen King put it on his list of the top ten films of 2006 and if it scares even him you must really be doing something right.

The film opens with a young woman, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) enduring a terrible tragedy as she's involved in a head-on car crash that instantly kills her husband and daughter. This crash was filmed from the driver's perspective, a small director's touch that adds a lot of terror and surprise to a scene like that. Flash forward one year later and she and her friend, Beth (Alex Reid) are invited by Juno (Natalie Mendoza) on a caving expedition to the Appalachian Mountains where they're later joined by Holly (Nora Jane-Noone), Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Sam's sister Rebecca (Saskia Mulder). We find out the entire expedition is Juno's idea as a way to help Sarah's healing and bring them all closer together. It may also be to ease her guilty conscience since she's harboring a huge secret I'm not going to give away in this review. However, I will say this secret is at the crux of the story and plays a major part in the relationship between two of the women later in the film. I liked how this secret was always implied, but never once stated during the movie.

Unfortunately, the all balls and no brains Juno brings them to a dangerous, unexplored caving system and a cave-in has blocked the way they came in and what appears to be their only way out. It's here where things begin to get interesting as we meet a herd of cave "crawlers" that look like some kind of bat-human hybrid. It's a long way into the picture before we finally see them, but when we do they look incredibly scary. Not disgusting looking in a movie kind of way, but actually scary looking. They kind of resemble "batboy" from that infamous World Weekly News photo and anyone who says that thing doesn't look scary is lying. When I saw the first one appear (seemingly out of nowhere) I embarrassingly jumped out of my couch and screamed. I've never done that before during any movie. Ever.

These creatures are top notch horror creations who happen to look very real and are hungry for some human flesh, in this case some young women. While the film does an excellent job building suspense, that's not to say it isn't graphic because it absolutely is. It's incredibly graphic and disgusting as we watch these bat creatures (complete with frightening primal yell when they're ready to attack) dine on their human prey. The difference with the gore in this film and other lesser horror outings (like last year's dreadful The Hills Have Eyes remake) is that this film earns it's gruesomeness by building a story with suspense and tension, while at the same time not overexposing the bat creatures. The movie builds logically to their arrival, then unleashes hell.

If the film has one flaw it's that it almost builds too logically and casually, waiting too long to get to the grit of the picture. Nearly the entire first hour is spent with these women talking before they descend into the cave. That would be fine if we were establishing characters or building tension, but they're just talking. Then talking some more. The beginning of the movie felt less like a horror film and more like The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants. I also had great difficulty at times telling the women apart, especially when they eventually got into the cave. This may be one of those rare cases where the presence of one or two big name actresses (at least the right ones) would have helped. All of these women are nameless, faceless nobodies who, with the exception of two, have no distinctive personalities. I could recognize Juno because I knew she was the daredevil who enjoys killing these "crawlers" a little too much but I have to admit I barely recognized Sarah and she's supposed to be the main character. I know it's a horror movie, but I don't think it's asking too much that they have enough of a personality and look that we can tell them apart in a dark setting. If we don't know who they are, we can't care no matter what type of movie this happens to be. I will give the filmmakers credit though for resisting the temptation to cast teenage girls in the roles and instead picking adult women. I can't even remember the last time I've seen that. I'm sure they also figured by casting nobodies it would make the randomness of the event seem that much more terrifying, and in a way they were right. It's hard to criticize that decision.

There's been much debate about the ending of this film and the the one included on this unrated disc is the original U.K. ending, not the ending U.S. audiences were exposed to during it's theatrical release (although if you want that one it's still available on the bonus features). Without giving too much away, let's just say we can use this as another example of American studio bosses often having no clue what we want. Supposedly, the original U.K. ending "tested poorly" and was scrapped because it was too bleak and offered no hope. The result was the movie ending about a minute too soon, but luckily that minute has been restored on this DVD release. It makes a big difference and we can now enjoy an ending more in line with the overall tone of the film and what the director initially intended. The U.S. ending isn't that bad and is far from optimistic, but a horror film is not exactly supposed to leave us feeling hopeful and happy about the world. If you're going to go dark, you may as well go all the way. The unrated version of The Descent definitely does that, putting it a league above most gorefests released today that mistakenly market themselves as horror. This one is actually the real deal.

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