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The Descent (December 26/05)

The Descent marks filmmaker Neil Marshall's first effort since his debut - 2002's Dog Soldiers - and to call this an improvement is a wild understatement. Though Dog Soldiers was actually pretty entertaining and enjoyable, the film was distinctly lacking in tension and actual horror - two things that are extremely prominent within The Descent.

The story follows six female friends - including Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who's still reeling from the death of her husband and daughter, and team leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza), an alpha-female if there ever was one - as they embark on a caving expedition somewhere in the hills of North Carolina. Though they're meant to explore a well-marked cave designed for tourists, Juno surreptitiously changes the plans and takes the girls to an unmarked cavern - which proves to be a problematic decision once the six pals find themselves trapped within.

Though it features an admittedly iffy opening half hour - in retrospect, we can see that it's been designed to establish the dynamic between these six people - The Descent eventually becomes a tense, suspenseful, and flat-out terrifying horror film. Even before the girls find themselves under attack from outside forces, the movie succeeds as a visceral and thoroughly claustrophobic look at the efforts of these disparate characters to cope with their newfound surroundings. Like Open Water and The Blair Witch Project before it, The Descent effectively (and realistically) captures the vibe of being lost in the last possible place one would ever want to be lost.

Marshall handles the film's abrupt shift from psychological drama to balls-to-the-wall scarefest with astounding ease, ensuring that the discomforting and surprisingly plausible tone remains intact throughout. And though the movie is shrouded in darkness for roughly 90% of its running time, there's never a sense of incoherence or oppressiveness at work here - unlike a certain other film set beneath the Earth's surface (ahem, The Cave). About the only really negative thing one can say about The Descent - aside from the relatively sedate first act - is that it is occasionally difficult to tell the actresses apart, but that's an awfully minor complaint for a film that is as genuinely frightening as this.

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