A huge hit last summer in its native Britain, writer/director Neil Marshall's The Descent finally hits the States with a compelling mix of action and horror. Not since Aliens have the two genres fit so seamlessly, if on a much smaller scale here. Marshall throws in a few twists on convention as well, just to keep things fresh. The result is a film that gives back some meaning to the otherwise overused "thrill ride."
The film begins with extreme sports enthusiast Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, whom you'll spend most of the film convincing yourself isn't Gwyneth Paltrow) undergoing a horrible accident. Her flashbacks to the event (not to mention the event itself) provide much of the startle factor for the first third of the film, probably the cheapest ploy Marshall uses, but he has much more up his sleeve.
To get her mind off things, albeit a year later, her friends gather in West Virginia to go on a spelunking expedition. Apparently cave exploration is good for post-traumatic stress. For the next 20 minutes or so we find out that caving all by itself has plenty of potential for horror. In fact, the goriest image in the film has nothing to do with what comes later, but is merely the result of a fairly routine mishap. Marshall wrings plenty of tension out of this opening act, but the best is yet to come.
It would be unfair to give away just what they encounter in the cave. Half the fun (and the scare) is in not knowing. (And, by the way, do avoid the trailer, which gives away one of the best moments in the film.) Suffice it to say they are not alone, and it would be much better for them if they were. When they discover this fact, edge-of-your-seat terror and lots of ill-advised running without knowing where you're going ensues.
From the moment of their first run-in with whatever's-down-there to the very end of the film, Marshall doesn't let up. It's horrible situation after horrible situation and skin of your teeth escape (or not). And, in a horror tradition dating back to the first zombie films, your supposed friends can be the most dangerous factor of all. The final two-thirds of the film more than make up for whatever lax moments occur in the first.
Adding a little spice to the formula is the twist on the conventional horror casting of coed terror with one strong male and, at most, one strong female lead. Here we have a group of all-female adrenaline addicts, not a weak link among them (though some are a bit more foolhardy than others). It's as if Marshall took the female leads from half a dozen other horror films and threw them all in together to take on his evil from below. It's one thing to see some starlet cowering in terror from an axe-wielding maniac. It's another thing entirely to see a group of tough characters in fear for their lives. Whatever they're facing must be dangerous. Jason wouldn't last very long down here.
By the same token, the danger they face isn't entirely insurmountable. In a movie like Predator or Jurassic Park, once you see the bad guy, it's pretty much over. Here, up until your last horrific moments, you stand a fighting chance. In a way, that's much scarier, because it takes a lot longer to know whether or not a particular character is going to make it.
Marshall ties all these elements together in a neat, bloody 99-minute package. The Descent is probably best seen at a midnight screening with a gaggle of like-minded horror junkies. The screams (and there will be screams) will be much louder then.
Reviewed at the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival