The Descent

November 23rd, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Written and Directed by Neil Marshall

Starring Natalie Mendoza, Shauna Macdonald, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Myanna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone

Since the political correctness craze, you haven’t been able to make a movie without someone assigning issues and subtexts to it. 20 years ago The Da Vinci Code would have been just another chase thriller, but after attacks by image conscious interest groups from Opus Dei to competing authors it became one of the hot potatoes of 2006.

Genres that tap into our most subconscious depths such as horror or love stories have attracted similar socio-political debate, and proof that Hollywood is stumbling in the issues-aware 21st century is the cranking out of tired remakes of horror classics. Movie marketers know horror works and they know why, they just don’t seem to be able to replicate it without churning out what’s already been done, complete with a music video director and the publicity party line that it’s a ‘reimagining’.

True movie fans get it. Movie fan directors like Neil Marshall and Peter Jackson sat in their living rooms watching video nasties like Driller Killer, Dawn of the Dead and I Spit on Your Grave in the mid 80s, and they get it.

Horror is its own purpose. That’s why in the 21st century, when a film like Dog Soldiers (Marshall’s latest effort) comes out, fans latch onto it amid the self-referential, too-smart-for-their-own good issues movies that most cinema is concerned with. There’s no secret to it — we want to be scared, and Marshall wants to scare us.

Like Dog Soldiers before it, The Descent is a stripped back scare film with a single, simple concept. A group of adventurer friends go caving. The caves are home to monsters. What more do you need to know?

Inexplicably held back for over a year before release in Australia, The Descent is indeed a scare movie. It comes partly from the short, sharp shocks of a horror movie, and partly from the solidness of an idea. Like Snakes on a Plane tapped into two of our biggest fears, The Descent isn’t only about being chased by carnivorous creatures, but being trapped underground in the cold and dark, an allegory for being dead and buried if ever there was one.

Sarah (Macdonald) and her friends make an annual pilgrimage to the wilds to do something adventurous. Returning from a rafting trip, a tragedy takes her family away from her in an early scene that’s one of the film’s most brutal and shocking.

To help her heal, her friends rally around her to organise the next trip. Led by Juno (Australian actress Mendoza), the daredevil of the bunch, they go caving deep in the soggy forests of Scotland.

When a rockslide traps them underground, there’s no real need for panic despite the danger — they have a map and they’re all experienced.

Then Juno drops the first bombshell. Earlier on we’ve seen her leave the map in the car and wondered what sinister business she was up to. It turns out to be a well intentioned but tragic idea to cheer Sarah up; she’s led them into an unexplored cave that has no map, intending for the group to name it in Sarah’s honour.

If that’s not bad enough, something’s in there with them, and when they find themselves in a chamber strewn with human bones, the fact they aren’t actually the discoverers of the cave system is the least of their worries.

The reveal of the creature is done in classic horror movie fashion, and from that moment on you’ll be gripped in Marshall’s whirlwind of terror. The creatures, which he describes as ‘cavemen who never left the caves’ are humanoid in stature but batlike in their abilities to find prey and move over rocks, and with only a few climbing picks and ropes between them and their numbers quickly depleting, the girls don’t have much hope.

As Marshall wanted, it’s effective as a return to horror films for its own sake. You can read whatever you want into the fact that the heroes are all female, and you can draw Freudian conclusions about the damp, dark confines representing a return to the womb if you want, but it’s scary. What the hell else do you want from a horror movie?


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