Relentless. Once The Descent kicks into gear it is absolutely relentless. I was kept on the edge of my seat for most of the runtime, just wondering what was going to happen next, and I was not disappointed.
But I guess I should back up a little bit. The Descent is the latest entry in the survival sub-genre of horror. It is a beautifully realized excursion into fear. Something that makes even more frightening is that it is not treated as if it is a horror movie; it has a delicious slow burn feel that builds up inside of you, and when it kicks into gear you're pinned to your seat.
The film opens innocently enough. It starts with the introduction of three of our heroines, rafting the rapids of some unnamed river. It turns out that they are thrillseeking adventurers, each taking turns picking the destination. These journeys are not without their share of risk, and this one was no different, leaving the group dynamic forever altered. This change becomes evident when they meet up again a year later for their latest expedition in the Appalachian Mountains.
Our three adventurers meet up with the rest of the group, making six total, at a remote cabin on the mountain. The have a little fun talking about their backgrounds and such. The next morning their journey into darkness begins. Now, in order not to do you a disservice, my plot description will stop here. It is best that you discover this fresh.
The first 15-20 minutes move by rather slowly, and feel longer than they are. They all deal with the character introductions, and some relationship groundwork that is needed later on. Character development is kept minimal, but it is done in a very effective manner, if you pay attention. Granted, some of it is a little subtle for this type of film, but it really pays off in making these people believable, and even making me care about them. Sure, most fall into recognizable cliches, but they all work.
Once we get through that opening, and they are actually in the cave, the tension gets taken to the next level. It is a testament to Neil Marshall's ability. He took a simple storyline, boiled it down to its essence, and gave it a dose of fright that is just right to put a scare into the viewers.
The Descent has an organic feel to it, like a cross between Alien and The Blair Witch Project. The film is not dealt with as a horror film, at least not at first. The tension builds through the character's interpersonal issues and the issues within the cave exploration itself. It starts off as a group of friends exploring the cave system; some of them make unwise decisions.
The further into the cave system they go, the more problems crop up. Cave-ins, faulty equipment, wrong directions, what else can go wrong? Well, that is when the "crawlers" show up, albino, blind, and very hungry for flesh. This is where it all hits the fan. The action ramps up, as does the gore, and the disorienting feel. You don't know what is going to happen next, or where you are, and it is so frighteningly effective.
It has been quite some time since I have had this feeling in the movies. Sure, some movies will make you jump (An American Haunting), others will gross you out (Hostel), others have an eerie feel to them (Silent Hill), but none of them are nearly as effective as this.
I love it when a movie sneaks up and blindsides you, and that is exactly what happened here. I had heard a lot of good things going in, but I wasn't really sure what to expect. Once I settled in and got a handle on the characters, it was very easy to get wrapped up in their adventure. Watching their mental states deteriorate the further they go, as the circumstances become more and more life or death, was a blast. It was easy to predict who was going to survive, but the big question was how, and how the others would be exterminated. It is never explained just what the creatures are, but it is possible to make inferences based on little clues throughout the movie.
Writer-director Neil Marshall is a bright new voice in horror films. His first film was a surprise that I discovered as an edited Sci-Fi Channel Original, Dog Soldiers. He has moved on and gotten us a film on the big screen. His directing is taut, minimalist, allowing the setting create the horror. Sometimes less truly is more. He paints the screen in darkness, using various ways of illuminating the black. Blue flashlights, green glowsticks, red torches, all give a variety of looks to the surrounding stone walls, not to mention the infrared equipped camera revealing piles of bones and hidden crawlers to the explorers. The editing is also highly effective, lots of quick cuts, never allowing focus to be gained. It is a very disorienting style, yet works so well, putting us right in their shoes.
All of the movie's cave scenes were shot on soundstages, a fascinating fact considering how genuine everything looks. Also, the US theatrical ending is cut from the original UK ending. For better or worse, they both offer up a different interpretation. I have not decided which one I prefer, but they both work in their own ways.
Bottom line. Again, this movie is relentless. Whether it is the dangers of spelunking, or the threat of the crawlers, you will not be able to look away. This is one of the most frightening films to come our way in some time. So, sit down, and become enveloped in the horror.