So there I was on July 6th at Fantasia for the Canadian premiere of Neil Marshall’s “The Descent”. Viewing conditions were, regrettably, typical Fantasia stuff: the creaky and uncomfortable seats of the Hall theatre, about two speeches too many from the three made by festival honchos, and my personal favourite, the usual percentage of hollering, clapping morons who distractingly come to life whenever a kill scene happens to be rather inventive or gruesome.
These mitigating factors didn’t really prevent me from enjoying the film, but I wanted a second look at it, so there I was August 4th at the AMC for the earliest showing, with your standard-issue Friday afternoon crowd of eight people. Seeing the movie again confirmed my opinion that this first-rate plunge into the abyss of despair is one of the premier horror films of recent memory. I was impressed enough with its intensity and sheer horror that I added half a star to my initial three star rating. Let me go through the plot a little bit.
As the movie opens, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are wrapping up a white-water rafting expedition somewhere in England. The day ends in devastating tragedy, however, when Sarah’s husband and her young daughter suffer horrific deaths in a car accident. One year later, in an attempt to reconnect with friends and especially with Sarah, Juno organizes an all-girl caving trip in the Appalachian mountains. There, the previously mentioned three meet up with tomboy Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Rebecca’s younger sister Sam (MyAnna Buring) and responsible Beth (Alex Reid), Sarah’s best friend. Once everybody’s in the cave, Juno reveals that instead of taking them to a popular spot, she brought them inside an uncharted system, because she inexplicably thought it would be exciting and they could name it and stuff. Needless to say, this doesn’t help group chemistry, especially considering some slowly simmering tensions (“Was this trip about me or you?”, Sarah asks Juno at some point). Adversity piles up until Marshall kicks things in terrifying high gear with the introduction of a hideous, predatory sub-species lurking deep within the caves, sending the film pedal-to-the-ground into survivalist horror that will stun you on more than one occasion.
Marshall dealt with the theme of a group under siege in his first feature, Dog Soldiers (2002), where soldiers in training battled werewolves while holed up in an abandoned farmhouse. That one was a solid film, while “The Descent” is a remarkable accomplishment. The main difference, other than the inverted female-to-male ratio in the cast, is that Dog Soldiers didn’t take itself too seriously and had some cheeky moments. No such relief with “The Descent”, where trauma upon trauma befalls these strong gals, especially Sarah, until the latter has no choice but to revert to a primeval state where self-preservation is the only thing that matters. The film sustains superior tension right up to its jarring final frame, about which there has been some debate. Now, you may be aware that the U.K. cut featured a different ending (one easy way to read all about it is to look up the film on Wikipedia). It’s certainly very interesting, arguably even bleaker, and it will be a real downer if the DVD doesn’t include both endings. And yet, the ending we get worked for me, being bleak enough in its own right and providing a final jolt in line with the intensity of the whole movie.
The horror genre, along with a few choice thrillers that aren’t purely horror films, has a long tradition of depicting the backwoods as places of unsuspected, chilling menace (Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek, and I could name several others). Marshall starts from that premise of nature as harshly inhospitable and exploits it fully, but he also touches on fears of the dark (the eerie, progressively darkening hallway early on is an effective omen), the fear of turning paranoid after a traumatic event and the breakdown of trust among previously close individuals. The British director has crafted a film of rare intensity (the ferocity of the crawlers when they attack will leave you breathless) and enormously better than the vaguely similar The Cave (2005), a weak movie on its own and a really dreadful one in comparison.
“The Descent” has several striking moments, most of them involving Sarah, who emerges as a fascinating character. The stunning sight of her coming out of that thick pool of blood and who knows what, looking like a warrior princess gone to the worst depths of Hell and back, is one I won’t soon forget. If Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned, what about the one of a woman who lost her young daughter, then embarked on a caving trip that went beyond the nightmarish and into the unthinkable?
Review by Jean-François Tremblay