When it was released, “Dog Soldiers” was something of an anomaly. Appearing virtually out of nowhere, it was a bloody, funny & thoroughly British late night movie romp through genre conventions. Whilst it may have marked it’s writer-director Neil Marshall as someone to keen an eye on, few people thought that they were witnessing the emergence of one of the greatest new hopes for British (& indeed worldwide) horror cinema. With “The Descent” however, the director stakes a position for himself clearly at the forefront of the genre as a force to be reckoned with.
One year after tragedy befalls her, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is trying to get her life back on track, so she joins up with her five female friends for a caving expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. However, trip organiser Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is planning something a little more adventurous than the well-known cave system she’s told the rest of the group they’ll be heading for. Instead, she takes them to an unexplored system but when a sudden cave-in cuts off their way back, they find themselves trapped in the dark & unsure whether there even is a way out. The nightmarish situation soon gets a whole lot worse when they realise that they not alone in the darkness, & whatever are lurking in the shadows are mighty hungry…
“The Descent” is not, however, “Dog Soldiers” part 2. Although there are some similarities with the director’s debut (for example a group of people in the wilderness outnumbered by a nasty group of predators; some graphically intense field surgery), gone is the tongue-in-cheek good humour of the first film. There are moments of humour sure, but they’re well placed & kept very separate from the horror sequences. In its place is a dark, claustrophobic & seriously brutal edge with a raw & primal ferocity; with bloodily cathartic sequences a match for anything in “Haute Tension”.
The film starts off relatively slowly, with some nicely played scenes in a log cabin the night before the expedition allowing us to get to know the characters a little, & showing the same talent for presenting a group dynamic as “Dog Soldiers”. Tension starts to build up as they enter the cave, leading to a terrifically tense & claustrophobic sequence as the women crawl one at a time through an extremely narrow passageway that is threatening to collapse at any moment. From this sequence onwards the film mercilessly grips the viewers attention like a vice, & refuses to let go until the credits start to roll. The middle section sees the women alone in the caves, & is so utterly engrossing (with huge chasms to cross & treacherous unseen pits in the passageways) that I was actually wondering whether the film needed anything else as I would have been plenty happy with this alone. Not long after I wondered that however, the crawlers make their first appearance (with what is surely one of the all-time great jump shocks) & the film kicks into overdrive making me feel stupid for having ever wondered whether they were needed. The final half-hour is a relentless assault, somewhat reminiscent of “Aliens”, with the crawlers threatening to come leaping out of the shadows at any moment. Yes, that is a big comparison to make, but I believe it’s a comparison that by no means embarrasses Marshall’s film. It’s really that good. There are some really great sequences where Marshall builds the tension up by playing the audiences expectations of exactly where the next fright will come from, managing to deliver a series of hugely effective jolts, breath-catching tension, & aggressive violence.
The attacks themselves are gloriously frantic, fierce, brutal & incredibly bloody. The women are by no means the kind of screaming wusses you too often get in horror movies, but fit & capable women engaged in a primal battle for survival against a superior foe. I wasn’t prepared for quite how raw & animalistic “The Descent” actually gets towards the end, & particular mention must go to Shauna MacDonald for her terrific performance. Parts like this don’t come along very often & she grabs it with everything she’s got, & delivers a truly stunning turn. Which is not to take anything away from any of the other performances – they’re all great, but with the meatiest part MacDonald is able to take it up to another level.
One of the really tricky things about making a film set in a cave is that of lighting. Instead of having weirdly unmotivated light sources so you can see what is going on, Marshall uses the darkness to create tension, using only diegetic light sources. With green & red flares, torches, flames, & even the infra-red glow of a camcorder, the lighting is inventive & consistently good-looking, so that the repetitive surrounding don’t bore but only add to the claustrophobia. “Insomnia” composer David Julyan delivers a strong score, which builds the atmosphere well (one sequence calls Ennio Morricone’s “The Thing” to mind), whilst the modernistic orchestral aggression of the attack sequences calls to mind Elliot Goldenthal’s outstanding score to Alien3.
I have few problems with “The Descent”, but when it comes to the downside, it must be noted that this film doesn’t exactly rewrite the rulebook (except maybe in it’s all-female cast that is!). This kind of “picked off one by one in the darkness” plotting has been done before, & there are some stock events, such as the “oops you’re my friend!” moment from “Evil Dead 2”, or the “Kill me” familiar from the “Alien” saga. The thing is, even though we’ve seen this type of stuff done before it’s very rare to see it done quite this well, & the sheer force & conviction of the execution means that I’m more than willing to overlook this potential problem. Perhaps more notable is the problem when it comes to ending the film. Having everyone die may not play well to the masses, but yet escaping somehow would feel like a cop-out. The ending Marshall has gone with is a cunning compromise, which whilst not entirely satisfying is at least gloriously un-Hollywood & I can’t think of a better way to conclude the film. In fact, it also subtly hints at hidden depths to the film without rubbishing the import of everything you’ve just seen.
So, “The Descent” then. For me, this is unquestionably one of the horror events of the year, a gloriously tense & nerve-wracking thrill-ride that fully delivers on its promises. Quite simply, it’s Unmissable, & an object lesson in comparison to show why “The Cave” is such a screaming pile of poo.
Fox/Pathe’s UK DVD is a 2Disc affair, in standard R2/PAL format. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture looked simply stunning through my new DLP projector, whilst the addition of dts 5.1 audio is most welcome, making good use of the surrounds – although a Dolby 5.1 variant is also available. For extras, Disc 1 contains two audio commentary tracks, both featuring Neil Marshall. The first sees him chatting with the cast, the second with crew. If neither are quite so much fun as that on “Dog Soldiers”, both are entertaining & well worth listening to. Heading on to Disc 2, we get an above average 40 minute making of – “Beneath the Scenes”, 9 deleted & extended scenes, an outtake reel, & storyboard comparisons – plus the standard stills gallery, biographies, & original trailers. It’s a nice selection that compliments the film nicely, although it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff & the second disc feels a touch light. Even so, I have no hesitations marking this one out as an essential purchase.