Sunday, July 24, 2005

Review - The Descent

After scoring a surprise hit with his 2002 film Dog Soldiers, Geordie director Neil Marshall was hailed as the great new hope of British horror. I wasn’t as impressed with Marshall’s debut as others, feeling that the poor pacing and ill-advised attempts at humour robbed the film of much of its potency, but Marshall clearly showed promise and he has delivered on this potential in spades with The Descent. By cutting down on the comedy and focusing on the fear of darkness and enclosed spaces which almost everyone shares, Marshall has delivered a nasty, smart and remarkably effective horror which is guaranteed to have you cowering in your seat - when you’re not jumping out of it.
The Descent concerns an all-female group of friends who have a shared interest in extreme sports. The film opens with three of them on a white water rafting trip, which is followed by a tragic accident that leaves Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) devastated and an emotional wreck. One year later, Sarah is accompanying her friend Beth (Alex Reid) to America for a potholing expedition, but she still bears the scars of the previous year’s events, suffering nightmares and frequently hearing voices. Beth and Sarah meet up with Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and her companions Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder). This group of six head out into the mountains to start their adventure, having no idea of the nightmare they are about to venture into.

Marshall stages the first (extremely gory) shock within five minutes of the start and never lets up. The slick camerawork (this is a much more professional-looking film than Dog Soldiers) and spine-tingling music help the director build an stranglehold atmosphere of complete fear where you’re sure something terrible is about to occur at almost every turn. Marshall successfully portrays the trepidation of crawling through a tight passage with barely inches of room to spare into a dark unknown, making the first half of The Descent one of the most tense and uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve had in some time. He also skilfully uses the lack of natural light to exacerbate the sense of dread, as the film is lit only by torches, flares or glowsticks and some scenes even occur in pitch darkness.

Marshall’s all-female cast are adequate enough, although they struggle a little with the scant depth offered to them in the screenplay and the fact that the characters are not particularly well delineated. Sarah is set up as the main character very early on, but the rest of the cast have few defining characteristics between them. Holly is impetuous and reckless, Juno is egotistical and selfish, but the other three are almost interchangeable. Marshall adds some complexity into the group dynamic late in the game, raising questions about one of the character’s motives, but this isn’t particularly well-handled and feels like a late addition tacked onto the proceedings.

In the second half of the film The Descent suddenly takes on a different dimension as the group, already lost and with an injured member, are targeted by a number of cave-dwelling beasts who start to hunt them down and devour them one by one. This is nicely done by Marshall (certainly these creatures are more effective than Dog Soldiers’ men in wolves' clothing), but it takes a little something away from the film. The idea of being trapped in a cave, unable to move back or forward and completely vulnerable, is something that all viewers can relate too. However, the addition of these fictional creatures takes the film into the realms of the unreal and, while proving extraordinarily violent, these later scenes aren’t quite as scary as the panicky, all-too-believable sequences Marshall had provided earlier.

Instead, the final third of The Descent becomes something of an action film, with the girls desperately trying to fight off the increasing hordes of attackers. It’s exciting stuff and I loved how Marshall used this context to depict one character’s slide into savagery as the only way she can survive. Marshall sacrifices his actresses one by one, despatching each of them in a gory and inventive manner, and he keeps springing surprises right up to the end, pulling a fast one at the death.

Overall, The Descent is a marked improvement on Dog Soldiers and definitely confirms the director’s ability in this genre. He still has improvements to make though, the main one being his struggle with characterisation. Can Marshall deliver characters who exist below the surface? People who are more than just bodies waiting to be sliced and diced? The Descent is an excellent piece of work in so many ways, but if Marshall could iron out those niggling deficiencies then he truly would be a force to be reckoned with. We know he can make us jump, can he make us care?