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Movie Review: The Descent

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After losing her husband and young daughter in a horrific and grisly automobile accident, a young woman named Sarah attempts to climb out of the pit of despair she has been languishing in for over a year by joining a group of her close female friends on one of their annual adventure-seeking expeditions. Sarah’s friend Juno, the unofficial leader of the sexy sextet, has arranged for the group to go spelunking in a remote cave hidden deep in the Appalachians.

Staying the night in some rented cabins, the group of women set off the following day for their distant destination — which Juno assures them will be both exhilarating and challenging. Unbeknownst to the others, Juno, in an attempt to up the adventure quotient, is leading them into an unmapped and unnamed cave system. Initially, this seems of no major consequence for a group whose motto is, “If there’s no risk, what’s the point?” However, the danger-laden cave will indeed test the mettle of these risk-takers, and moreover, something with a taste for human flesh, alive and lurking in the cave’s dank darkness, might very well claim their lives.

Having already been released throughout Europe to great acclaim, The Descent is a horror film that fully deserves its lauded status, and unquestionably establishes writer/director Neil Marshall as one of horror cinema’s best and most promising new directors. At the screening I attended, the audience collectively, and repeatedly, jumped and gasped throughout the film — especially throughout The Descent’s unnerving last half. Without a doubt, The Descent is an uncompromisingly tense, heart-bursting exercise in horror filmmaking that should also make a big splash on this side of the pond.

In addition to the film’s visceral visual assault, the script (written by Marshall over a two-year period and numbering over ten drafts) is a compact but wholly satisfying horror yarn with some decently written characters that pull you into the story and their terrifying plight. At times six characters seems perhaps two too many, yet, overall the script fleshes the main characters out pretty well, giving them story arcs which eventually pay off. It’s also worth mentioning that the story takes its time setting itself up; in fact, the “horror" dimension of The Descent doesn’t bare its blood-soaked fangs until nearly forty minutes into the film. Nevertheless, The Descent is rarely boring or tedious and makes good use of its “slow” build, escalating tension as it creeps its way towards the memorably fright-filled, gore-strewn second half.

All of the actresses turn in some nice, truly physically demanding performances. The film’s protagonist, Sarah, played by Shauna Macdonald, goes through the biggest transformation over the course of the film — at one point recalling a blood-spattered Sissy Spacek in Carrie, and the next, proving to be more of a Ripleyesque badass, a la Sigourney Weaver. The character Juno, played by Natalie Mendoza, is the closest thing to a “human” antagonist in The Descent, as she is both deceptive and self-serving, and has an agenda that is ambiguous at best. Lastly, another standout is Nora-Jane Noone who plays Holly, a headstrong and humorous extreme sportswoman.

The Descent is also a prime example of a horror film that works wonders despite its modest budget. Primarily the movie was shot at Pinewood studios in England using six mock-up caves, miniatures and some matte paintings. If I hadn’t read this, however, I would be none the wiser because the caves certainly look like the real deal. It’s of additional interest to note the way in which director Neil Marshall and his DP Sam McCurdy (who also shot Marshall’s debut, Dog Soldiers) work within the parameters of having a film set in a cave. The Descent is lit to look as though only natural light sources are being used – flashlights, flares, and glow sticks – which really adds to the reality of the cave setting, and accentuates the claustrophobic feel that is prevalent throughout many parts of the movie. One clever addition in this regard was giving the group a camcorder with a night vision function, which is used to maximum fright effect at one point when Sarah is separated and lost in the cave’s all-encompassing darkness.

Another of The Descent’s exceptional elements are the creatures dwelling in the cave, which the director has dubbed "The Crawlers." They are truly frightening creatures, emerging from the darkness unexpectedly, hanging from the walls and ceilings of the cave, only to viciously pounce and shred their victims into rags of red pulp and naked bone. The makeup effects are fantastic, and go a long way toward proving that traditional effects, if used properly, are often more compelling and eclipse their CGI counterparts. The sound design that accompanies the Crawlers is also sure to breed goose bumps, especially the chilling, high-pitched shriek that the creatures emit prior to attack. In total, a lot of good scary stuff that should have most audience members logging in some substantial ass-on-edge-of-seat time.

One major complaint I have with The Descent however, is its ending. Actually, it’s with the U.S. alternate ending. Two different conclusions were shot for the film, and for some reason Neil Marshall chose to use the alternate ending, not used in the European release, for the film’s release in the United States. Suffice it to say, it’s basically a disappointing, tacked on final shot that is a major misstep in what is an otherwise excellent horror film.

Despite this, The Descent is truly a frightfully exhilarating cinematic experience that I wholly recommend you see in a theater with an audience. And I dare you not to jump.

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About Brian K

  • http://zomboscloset.blogspot.com Iloz Zoc

    I don’t know: I always look for the silver lining, even in a horror film. I prefer the US ending. Those cave sets, though. Man, what a beautiful bit of art direction and production skill. I hope they include extras on the DVD that go indepth on the making of the cave. I’m claustrophobic. Even knowing the cave was fake, I still had to stop for a bit after Sarah gets stuck in the tunnel. Now that’s horror.

  • Joel

    What’s the difference between the US and Euro endings?

  • Ty

    HOW THE HELL DOES ANYONE PREFER THE US ENDING?

    The original movie made by Neil Marshall has more to it and is a proper ending.

    In the US version, the daydream sequences with Sara’s daughter and her birthday cake make NO sense without the original ending.

    In fact, the whole OBVIOUS theme of Descent (into madness) is thwarted by the ending.

    It’s so f**king obvious Lionsgate DUMBED DOWN the ending and made it a happy one because they feared US audiences would hate the original.

    SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

    In the original ending, Sara wakes up in the cave after seeing Juno in the car. It was just a daydream, she’s still stuck there. She sees her daughter and birthday cake, but is just looking at the torch. She has gone totally nut-so and the movie ends.

    END SPOILER ALERT

    To say you PREFER the US ending is absolutely f**king ridiculous. I’m sorry, it’s the truth. But as a correction, it’s the US ending is not a tacked on final shot. Rather, it is euro ending cut way way way short so that we leave the theater thinking Sara actually got out, WHEN SHE DID NOT AS NEIL MARSHALL INTENDED IT TO BE.

  • Ty

    Here is a link to the original ending you can watch online. Please wait until AFTER seeing the shi**y US ending to see this.

    youtube.com video

  • GoBigEd

    I’ve heard 3 endings for this picture:

    UK ending (as in the link–going mad)
    US ending (the one I saw–seeing Beth in the car, then black)
    Second US ending (Sarah driving off into the distance)

    Anyone else hear about 3 endings?

  • http://panzerfaust blotto otto

    Both endings are okay. There is nothing wrong with US. ENDING THAT ENDS WITH SARRA LIVING. THERE IS NOTHING HAPPY ABOUT THIS ENDING AS SHE NOW HAS NOTHING LEFT..HER FAMILY AND FRIENDS ARE GONE. THIS ALSO MAY LEAVE ROOM FOR A SEQUEL WHICH IS GOOD BUSINESS FOR THE DIRECTOR.

  • DJBoogie

    I saw the Uncut version that was released in the US
    the UK ending is therefore left untouched, and is BY FAR the best ending!
    happy endings are too damn obvious, especially when the person you EXPECT to escape actually does. (aka 70s and 80s horrors)
    Leave the ending untouched I say, MUCH better
    the US ending is terrible!

  • Brandon

    I loved the original ending. A sequel would ruin the story

  • Stan

    The original with the bleak ending was a marvellous touch. British film makers do horror so well because they don’t pander to the audiences satisfaction, instead keep stories and character’s integrity…or as americans would say ‘keeping it real’ (lame joke, i know)…
    I just watched the sequel and must say it is the same roller coaster that makes you jump and egg the characters to get away fast! Rarely do horror films scare me, but both the ‘Descents’ did just that and then some. Highly recommend the sequel as it holds it’s own even to the first! Cult film 5 Stars!