After a while at Sundance, you need a little blood and gore to cut the tears and angst. Released last summer in the UK, The Descent has already been picked up for distribution in America by Lionsgate; that may have explained the sparse attendance at today's press screening and the fact it's a flat-out horror film may have explained the 80/20 male-to-female ratio. Yet, there's horror, and there's horror. A film like Cabin Fever or Hostel holds no interest for me, as it's got flat, stock characters and pours buckets of blood all over the place in the hope that will obscure the absolute absence of plotline, storytelling or actual suspense. To me, the idea of watching Hostel seems fruitless, with all the dramatic tension of watching someone pound meat into a sausage grinder for 90 minutes. And, after seeing it, The Descent is a great reminder of why horror's so memorable and fun when it sincerely works -- full of jumps and jolts, with people screaming at the screen in surprise and rooting for likable characters to avoid disgusting ends.
Neil Marshall earned fans with the high-thrills, low-budget Dog Soldiers; his follow-up, The Descent, is a textbook example of how well you can make a B movie horror flick. Marshall, as a writer and director, isn't afraid to engage in all the old tricks: The sudden, unexpected kill; the cheap-yet-effective dream sequence; the sepia-toned photograph of smiling friends about to take an outdoor expedition that might as well be labeled "Your 'Who-Dies-First?' Scorecard." Fortunately, he's talented enough that it becomes obvious that he's using all the old tricks as a platform to raise the film up above its field, not as a crutch because he can't support the film on his own.
The Descent has a brief prologue that does a nice job of setting up the character interactions between three friends -- adventurer Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) kind wife-and-mom Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and wisecracking Beth (Alex Reid) -- on a white-water rafting trip. It's a lot of fun. And then something tragic and unexpected and -- in case this setup should sound a little too Lifetime Network for you horror fans -- grisly happens.
A year later, Juno puts together a caving expedition in the Appalachians for herself, Sarah and Beth, plus the older, wiser Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Rebecca's medical student little sister Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Juno's risk-loving protégé Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). They're planning on a light adventure in the low-impact Boreham Caverns; as Molly says, "… It might as well have a … handrail. … Boredom Caverns is more like it." Of course, this being a horror film, there's somethingthing Juno hasn't told her friends about the cavern they'll be exploring … and there are things Juno doesn't know, as well.
Juno's picked an unexplored cave for the group as a fun, discovery-filled trek. She's also picked – although she doesn't know it – a cavern that's home to a group of flesh-hungry, sightless fearsome semi-human predators. So, the bad news is, the group is lost; the worse news is, they're also lunch. And thanks to a charismatic cast, you actually care if they're bumped off or not; Mendoza, Macdonald and Reid all bring considerable talent to their parts, and the rest of the cast finds nice minor notes to play between the screams and shrieks.
The rest of the film is a nice mix of peril and battle, as the group's ever-dwindling number tries to get out alive. What makes The Decent more than just a rote exercise in one-by-one disappearances and slimy, albino-pale latex makeup appliances is the fact that Marshall's script actually has the plot be driven by the characters and not just by the mechanics of beasties and bumps in the night; people in this film do unexpected things, both on purpose and by accident. Who these women are are is always a factor in what they do, even in the adrenaline-fueled kill-or-be-killed action of the finale. The Descent is a great example of what good can come when smart people understand how to find the possibilities and potential of genre material -- and avoid the pitfalls.
Others on The Descent: Since the movie was already released in Europe, there are a lot of reviews available here. [Thanks to David at GreenCine Daily for the link.]