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August 4, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | August 4, 2006 |

The best way to distinguish one director from another is to have both take the same blueprint, make a film, and see what each comes up with. To further liven things up, have them operate in a firmly grounded genre — horror, which arguably has the most formulaic modus operandi and archetypes.

British directors can occasionally spin familiar horror yarns in ways that give heightened style and excitement to their American flash-bang counterparts. Case in point: Neil Marshall’s horror-thriller The Descent takes an age-old Alien draft and gives it a refreshingly dark, feminine twist, while last year’s appalling schlock The Cave — which possessed a virtually identical story — left an aftertaste far more acrid than thrilling. Marshall’s success can be attributed to a number of talents he possesses in greater facility than Bruce Hunt, but most important is his willingness to imbue his characters with additional depths that give an audience genuine interest in their fates.

The Descent concerns six women — all big-risk adventurers who congregate annually to go rafting or caving or whatever adventurous people like to do. A year after a grisly car accident kills Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) husband and daughter, the sextet head for a remote cave in the Appalachians, where alpha-female Juno (Natalie Mendoza) hopes some extreme spelunking in an undiscovered grotto will help with the grieving process. After the first 10 minutes or so, there are no male characters (or extras at all) in the movie. Heroines are in no short supply in horror films, but this small all-female cast makes us focus harder on the characters and their rather complicated dynamics.

There’s little beyond a few genial laughs in the early scenes that indicate The Descent will be anything other than a relentlessly dark film. Anyone who’s seen the previews or heard the premise will know what the girls will encounter in their trip down the rabbit-hole, but I’m still hesitant to give away anything. The less one knows about the plot in this case, the better: Marshall paces the film almost perfectly, letting the tension build exponentially without quite giving the viewer clues as to what’s coming next.

Indeed, some of the more disturbing elements of the movie are provided by the environment itself. Whereas in Hunt’s The Cave, the setting merely offered an excuse for darkness, The Descent takes full advantage of pitch-black, enclosed surroundings to heighten genuine paranoia. One scene, in which Sarah gets stuck crawling through a tiny crevice and begins hyperventilating is nightmarishly claustrophobic. Marshall also uses the locale’s natural suspense by framing close shots in which only flares and headlights illuminate the grimy, wet sepia.

The story moves along with the protagonists finding themselves in slightly more dangerous situations, until a cave-in cuts off their escape route and forces them deeper underground. Then, one climber breaks her leg and has to be carried. And then

Once the movie arrives at its core crisis, the disturbing tension gives way to a nightmare of visceral movement and violence. Marshall doesn’t relent to give the audience a breather when this happens but bashes it over the head with rapid-succession images and carnage in such a way that the viewer will probably forget to be scared. It’s some of the most intense filmmaking I’ve seen in recent horror flicks.

I actually had the pleasure of seeing The Descent in Berlin earlier this year, where it has been out on DVD for some time. While the movie deserves to be seen on the big screen, the original ending has been altered in a detrimental way for its American release. The rumors hold that Marshall approved the excising of 30 crucial seconds from the original cut to appease American distributors’ insulting and confounding desire for a more “upbeat” ending. The original’s final scenes were vague and unsettling, but fit perfectly with the rest of Marshall’s themes and left a disturbing mood lingering with the viewer, and they’ve chucked it in this theatrical release for a cheap scare. But for that and a few derivative lines of dialogue, The Descent would have been far and away the best horror film released this year.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

Edit: I honestly don’t remember coming across the IMDB blurb that’s extremely similar to the opening sentence of the second paragraph, but I agree — it’s too close for comfort and I’ve changed it accordingly. — Phillip

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad C.H.U.D.?

The Descent / Phillip Stephens

Film | August 4, 2006 |

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