This is a fine horror-thriller that displays most of the strengths of writer-director Neil Marshall’s debut effort, the werewolves-vs.-grunts flick DOG SOLDIERS: it’s about a band of people (in this case, six female cave explorers) in an isolated location confronting a ravenous pack of man-eating monsters. There is a simlar sense of group dynamics, with a small batch of characters nicely drawn, some intense action, and some nifty monsters. The most obvous missing element is the clever tongue-in-cheek attitude of the earlier film; this time, Marshall wants to make a serious drama about what happens to ordinary people under extreme duress. Unfortunately, the film also lacks the well-drawn battle lines of DOG SOLDIERS, in which the character conflict was perfectly set-up in the first few minutes. THE DESCENT does a good job with characterization, but it does not hook you into its groove.
The underground cave setting is an excellent one for a horror film, and first sign that THE DESCENT is not just another monster movie is that it is interesting long before the monsters arrive midway through (an early scene of the stranded explorers traversing a shaft over a bottomless ravine is as nail-biting as anything in the film). When the monsters do appear, Marshall (and his cinematographer) make excellent use of the dark confine of the caverns, their shadows only dimly lit by helmet lamps, flashlights, and flares. Even better, Marshall cleverly uses a home video-camera (with an infrared light, of course) to show much of the underground action. This has the simultaneous effect of blurring and distorting the imagery (thus hiding potential budgetary limitations) and creating a jumpy hand-held look that perfectly captures the sense of claustrophobic panic infecting the characters.
In the end, THE DESCENT does not quite match the level of DOG SOLDIERS. Despite the fact that the film begins with a startling shock (one woman’s family killed in a car crash) that establishes the back story and sets up our empathy with the lead character, Marshall seems afraid that the early character-building scenes may leave the horror hounds restless, so he tosses in a few cheap scares to break the imagined tedium. These hallucinations/nightmares/fake-outs are effective, but they push the film down a level toward being a cheap mechanical shocker, when Marshall’s real strength is that he doesn’t need this junk because he writes good stories that dramatize groups falling to pieces under pressure. The monsters just happen to be the catalysts for the social implosion, creating a situation in which the buried resentments and frayed alliances rip to shreds.
In other words, Marshall makes real movies, not just schlockfests designed to sate the lusts of gore-lovers (although there is plenty of gore, too). He is probably the most talented and promising young filmmaker practicing in the West, whose two films place him above the more highly touted names like Alexandre Aja, Greg McLean, Eli Roth, and James Wan and Leigh Wannell.
SPOILER ALERT: For the American release, the film’s ending was slightly shortened. The U.S. version concludes with Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) escaping from the cave, riding away in a jeep, and pulling over to the side of the road to calm down – whereupon she is shocked by the inexplicable appearance of Juno, whom she left ito die inside the cave. (Juno was responsible for their predicament, having intentionally misled the team into a previously unexplored cave system; she also accidentally killed one of the other girls and left her to die.) The U.S. version ends here, implying that Sarah is haunted by guild over leaving Juno behind. The original British version followed this up with a scene of Sarah – only having dreamed her escape – awakening inside the cave to find herself surrounded by the crawling cannibalistic underground dwellers, and resigning herself to her inevitable fate.
THE DESCENT (2005). Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll
REVIEW: Dog Soldiers