THE DESCENT

SUMMARY
ANALYSIS

Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

Executive Producer: Paul Smith

Producer: Christian Colson

Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza

35mm

United Kingdom, 2005, 99 min.

 

 

SUMMARY

*As a rule, every year, Sarah and her athletic gal pals take a trip into nature's wilds for an adventure. During a white-water rafting excursion, damaging sexual intrigue develops, and tragedy strikes Sarah and her family. In an attempt to heal old wounds, her friend Juno convinces Sarah and her sister, Kate, to leave Scotland and rejoin the group in the Appalachian Mountains for a cave expedition. After a night of revelry and reminiscing in their mountain cabin, the ladies hit the back roads for a set of unmapped caves discovered by Juno. With all faith placed in their fearless leader, the spelunkers dive into the beautiful depths of the damp caves and commence a journey destined to reveal the true nature of their friendships. What they discover in the cavernous depths will change their lives forever.

With an exquisite eye for detail, Neil Marshall has created a rare achievement - a visually splendid horror thriller that delivers a roller-coaster ride of tension and fear. Starring an exceedingly good-looking cast, led by Shauna Macdonald as Sarah and Natalie Mendoza as Juno, The Descent is filled with astonishing cinematography and takes us on a terrifying drop into uncharted territory, one that you may find yourself wanting to take more than once.

*Summary by Shari Frilot, SUNDANCE Film Programmer

 

ANALYSIS

Unbelievably, this small low-budget horror movie provided the greatest audience experience I encountered at Sundance this year. I wasn't originally going to go to this, but I have a friend at Rogue Films (the specialty division of Focus Films) who wanted me to go check it out, so I grabbed a ticket for the midnight screening and sneaked in the back. The plot really isn't much to write home about: 6 amazingly beautiful women go exploring virgin caves, end up encountering some gross and terrifying beasties, and fight for their lives to get out of the caves. However, the direction and the momentum of the script elevate the film to something unexpected. First, you have to like gore, or at least, be able to laugh it off instead of being horrified by it. I'm talking spikes in eyes, torn entrails, leg bones exposed to the air, cannibalism, and much much more. Second, there are SO many jump scares, some fake-outs and other actual scares, that you have to be in the mood to be jerked around like that.

The film looks fantastic for a low-budget film, playing with the darkness of the cave with flares, flashlights, and even a night-vision camera. There is one particular scene of the women crawling through a particularly tight cave space, which had everyone in the theater gasping and twisting in their seats. Somehow, the filmmaking in that scene made those in the audience who never had a fear of enclosed spaces momentarily claustrophobic. Hell, I enjoy a good amount of spelunking, and I'm not sure if I'll ever be going back down again! Cliches abound, such as the inevitable development of a 'Ripley' character, a formerly meek and unassuming women who becomes a kick-ass survivor by the finale. The great and original twist here is that once that moment comes to pass for the lead woman, she also loses her sanity along with her meekness. A lot of great individual moments here, my favorite being the slow, but entirely expected surfacing of a cave creature just behind the lead actress. Also, there is a great shot, where the camera is following two women as they go around a corner in the cave. You know the jump scare is coming, but the shot goes far longer than you expect, and you can feel the director playing with your expectations of the horror cliches, which is a blast to experience, especially in one shot.

The audience was extremely vocal. Right after the second big scare, about 10 minutes into the film, everyone jumped a foot in the air and then started laughing in appreciation, refusing to quiet down for the next five minutes. For the rest of the film, everyone was screaming, grabbing the arm of the people next to them, be them friends or strangers, and yelling expletives at appropriate times. It was a blast. I had heard that there was a different ending when the film was released in England last year, an ending that focused more on the loss of the main character's sanity, and the consequences of her friend's sanity. I'll admit that ending sounds like it makes more sense, as it develops the themes presented in the early part of the film, and clears up the infidelity issue, which I didn't even notice in this version until someone mentioned it to me after the screening. As the ending goes now, it's more of a shock scare that springs from the main character's fractured mind so that you can't tell if its reality or not. Just know that you can never keep Juno down. Fun, messy, and scary. Even though I'm not usually a horror guy, it was done well enough and attended by such a receptive audience, that I was as into it as any of the others. Plus, unbelievably hot women. Forget the Hostels and the Saws out there. Wait for this one to come out in the theaters, then go see it in a good theater with a great sound system. It will blow your mind.

 

written 1/4/06