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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

The Descent Neil Marshall 2005

Drop Dead Gorges

This movie is fucking amazing. Full stop.

Oddly, I’m going to encourage you not to read this review. Strange words coming from a critic who feeds his filthy appetite with the pure interest and attention of cineastes, but true ones. See, this is one of those movies that you’re going to like a hell of a lot more if you have no idea what’s going on. Which goes for most horror movies, yes – but see, most horror movies SUCK. Let’s just agree on that point and move on. I defy anyone to look at the list of horror releases from 2005 and name 5 that they would show to anyone other than a sworn enemy or lingering door-to-door Mormon missionary. Yes, we watch them – but we usually bite into more bad apples than good, and that’s what drives us into the pattern of unfounded high expectation, inevitable disappointment, and crushing depression that you and I laughingly call “life”.

But enough about us.

When Neil Marshall burst onto the scene with the bloody, hyperactive werewolf romp Dog Soldiers (an above-average flick, if a bit meat-headed), he of course had hundreds of thousands of fanboys clinging to his cuffs, begging him not to follow the standard career path of failing right out of the gate. When early notices of his curious follow-up, The Descent, started seeping out of the UK (where it opened last year), it was promising, but what of a U.S. release? The flick even played at Sundance, and still word was very hushed. Was the movie a dog? Was it ever going to see the light of day? Well, Lionsgate did us all a favor by picking this one up and giving it the push it deserves, almost making up for the atrocities that were committed in their release of High Tension last year. True, Tension was a much weaker film to begin with, and true, they still messed with the ending of The Descent in a way that should really be unforgivable. But the rest of the movie is so damn good that it’s really hard for even me to complain.

The film is about as different from Dog Soldiers as you can imagine, while still retaining the previous flick’s intensity and brutal gore. The story here follows a group of women who have a sort of adventurers’ club, meeting at a different place each year to either go rafting, or climbing, or competition knitting, or whatever (I include “knitting” not because these are women, but because I honestly have no idea what else an adventurers’ club might do). The group is an affable bunch, although there are definitely tensions lingering over a terrible accident that claimed the husband and child of one of the ladies (Sarah, brilliantly played by Shauna Macdonald, who previously appeared in the excellent “Murder Rooms” miniseries that played on Mystery! a few years back) after last year’s expedition. The gals all get along great, but there are definite alliances and unspoken grudges hanging in the air – it’s a realistic gang, all told. Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has organized this adventure, a climb down into a famed cave system. Her new friend (it’s kind of suggested that there might be something more going on) Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) is a hardcore thrill-junky and looks like she could be trouble, while mild-mannered, supportive Beth (Alex Reid), doctor-to-be Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Sam (MyAnna Buring) fall more in line in terms of group dynamic.

When it became clear that we are going to be spending an entire film in enclosed spaces with a group of intelligent, skilled, athletic women, I seriously nearly pooped my pants. This is UNHEARD OF. Even when horror movies do focus solely on women and cut out the controlling eyes and hands of boyfriends, husbands, and authority figures, they nearly always hand the job of objectifying the women to the camera, which leers and slobbers enough for an entire supporting cast. Not here. These aren’t bimbos, they’re strong females with smarts and interests. Even the young whippersnapper is only an outsider because she’s a bit crass and devil-may-care, not because she’s a slut or an airhead, as would usually be the case. Instead of tacking index cards on the women’s heads that read “Bitch”, “Whore”, “Bookworm”, “Goody-goody”, and so forth, Marshall grants these ladies some dignity and self-respect, and allows their character traits – good or bad – to emerge as the conditions change. Nice work.

Once inside the cave, and after a good deal of painfully claustrophobic spelunking (between this and The Cave, I’m not even getting into a fucking Volkswagen for the next 6 months, much less a gorge), a minor shift blocks the path back up to the surface, and Juno makes a horrifying confession: this isn’t the cave that she pointed out to them in the guidebook. In fact, it’s uncharted, and she has no idea if there is another exit. Naturally, the girls flip out. What kind of move was that? The group’s bond is stretched, as the other girls try to process this ballsy and entirely inappropriate move – did she choose her own ego (she wanted them to be the first group to explore the cave so that they could name it) over their safety? And come to think of it, why didn’t she stay longer after the accident in Scotland to console Sarah after her loss?

The chinks that start to show in the calm exteriors of the women stretch and widen as the physical realities of their situation become more dire – they’re wet, have no rope, and are going deeper and deeper without knowing if there is a way back up. And what was that strange noise that Sarah heard? Was it a bug? Or something bigger? Or is Sarah just cracking under the pressure? She never really did get over the accident, did she…? Just at the point that the bonds of the group are stretched to breaking, a horrifying new element is introduced:

They are not alone.

In one of the most horrifying reveals I’ve ever seen, the cave’s other inhabitants make themselves known, and things get fucking UGLY. From this point on, it’s fight or flight, as the blind, disgusting humanoid predators attack the group from all directions, cleaving the group and driving them further into the mountain. The initial attack is seriously one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen in years – and it’s all very, very simple (it makes me think of the trailer attack in the Hills Have Eyes remake, which required a double-rape, a baby, and a burning man crucified to a cactus to achieve the same impact). Holly is attacked, Beth is caught in the fray, and the group is split up, with the rapidly unraveling Sarah in the lead, carrying a night-vision videocamera. Soon enough we’ve got a bone chamber, a blood pool, and a horrifying act of vengeance that will leave your jaw in your lap and your mind racing to decide whether the actions were deserved.

This, ultimately, is why The Descent works for me. It’s not a movie that gives easy answers – it’s about tough topics (loss of a child, betrayal, survival, responsibility), and it doesn’t once pass judgment – the women make choices and they are forced to deal with them, and that’s that – and the combination of this hands-off moral ambiguity with such deep sadness and bone-wrenching violence is staggering. Marshall isn’t punishing these women for anything – not even their worst tendencies. It’s just a matter of survival. I love that Marshall isn’t claiming that women are any better at men, in terms of group dynamic (an old wives’ tale, if you ask me) – they’re just as prone to ego and betrayal as men are. But his keen eye and sensitivities to the differences in group dynamic are amazing. This and Dog Soldiers should be shown as companion pieces.

Lest you think that this flick is a sociology lesson, let me assure you that it’s a harrowing, brutal piece of work – my hand was over my mouth for the last 30 minutes, lest I scream like a little girl on fire. The combination of frenzied attacks and cunningly-lit, impossibly claustrophobic spaces is done brilliantly, and the gore is visceral and wet – you feel every bite and slash. Not that you want to, but there ya go. The physical challenges that these women have to undergo are also sometimes excruciating to watch – you’ll be exhausted just watching them.

I do have one fault with the film, and it is this: put any 6 no-name actresses – most of whom have Scottish accents – in cave-climbing gear and light them with Mag Lights, and it’s going to be pretty fucking hard to tell them apart. Marshall does play a nifty trick after the women have separated of having each of them lit by a different color light source (green light sticks, red flares, infrared), which does make things easier to follow, but at that point I had already missed who a few the characters were anyway.

Otherwise, I have very few complaints. The score is fantastic – see if you even notice it, it’s so well-done (no annoying jump cues!); the acting is very natural and occasionally heartbreaking (especially on the part of Macdonald as the troubled, rapidly spiraling Sarah – she gets to a very, very dark place, no pun intended); the ending, though it may confuse some or piss others off, is a bit of a cop-out compared to the original European cut (which ended with a period, while this version ends with a question-mark) but still relatively effective. I can’t wait to see this one again in the theatres (having seen it about 7 times already), and find it hard to believe that we’ll see a better horror flick this year – Not. To. Be. Missed.

Rating (out of 5):