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The Descent: Nearly Transcendent

January 25, 2007

Debuting in 1968, Night of the Living Dead popularized the use of location shooting and graphic violence in horror movies, but it also did something more: it showed the heights a horror flick could reach when it valued character as much as terror. The possibility of a genre-wide renaissance was shot to hell in 1974, however, with the huge success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie populated by such paper-thin, annoying protagonists that you end up rooting for Leatherface to kill them. Today, no one expects–or even seems to want–their horror movies to be anything more than an incoherent sequence of shocks and gore. But Neil Marshall, the writer and the director of The Descent, has higher aims.

The opening scenes aren’t particularly promising: three beautiful women are rafting down a set of Class V rapids, laughing and shrieking over the excitement of the adventure. The woman we come to recognize as the protagonist, Sarah, is a bland blonde beauty played by an unrecognizable actor, Shauna McDonald. She has a seemingly perfect life–loving husband, beautiful daughter–but tragedy strikes. A year later, the trio regathers with three of their equally tough, equally attractive friends for a caving expedition in the Appalachians. Watching them drink and bond in an isolated cabin the night before their hike to the cave, it’s not clear whether we’re watching the setup for a horror movie–or a lesbian porn.

But it’s clear that Marshall is no hack. In the first 10 minutes, we’re privy to three shriek-inducing shocks. Marshall shoots everything with the voyeuristic detachment we’ve come to expect from horror movies: the camera wanders around the characters, everything shot from a medium distance with no close-ups, views of conversations glimpsed through doors and windows. Are they being watched? Hunted? The tension only eases come daybreak.

As they make their descent into a gaping hole in the earth, their characters’ personalities begin to emerge. Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) is the reckless leader, a woman so obsessed with the rush of risk that she leaves their mapbook behind. Holly (Nora Jane-Noone) seems equally fearless, although we can’t tell whether her boasting is a sign of strength or insecurity. Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) is the mother hen, an experienced Scandanavian climber who seems a bit too protective of her younger sister, Sam (MyAnna Buring), a medical student. Beth (Alex Reid) is a bit of an enigma; her only purpose seems to stay close to Sarah, who we come to understand is damaged goods following the previous year’s tragedy. It gradually becomes apparent that Marshall’s minimalist approach to characterization isn’t laziness–he trusts the audience to put together the missing pieces of the characters’ backstories on our own.

The journey through the cavern is drenched in dread. Marshall exploits our fears of darkness and claustrophobia, filming the women contorting their bodies through narrow, pitch-black passages. While they show occasional trepidation over their explorations, the overall atmosphere is one of adreline-fueled excitement. We know what they don’t: that nobody in their group knows the way out. The shit only hits the fan when their entrance to a scenic chamber collapses behind them.

From there, we enter the delicious territory Night of the Living Dead explored so well. Beth blames Juno for conning them into such a reckless adventure; Juno blames Holly for supporting her; Sam cries; Sarah sulks. As in the Night of the Living Dead, betrayals and resentments begin to destroy the group before the monster even gets a chance. But The Descent does George Romero’s classic one better; once the monster appears, everyone scatters. There will be no opportunity for monster-fighting teamwork.

In a fascinating twist, Sarah is transformed by the harrowing adventure. After watching her friends die in a chamber full of animal bones, she falls into a pool of blood. She comes out baptized, with a strange, frightening look in her eyes, her thirst for vengeance trained on Juno as much as the monster. We begin to put things together. What did Juno mean when she said we all lost something the day tragedy struck Sarah’s family? Wasn’t Sarah’s husband a bit too familiar with Juno as the girls got out of the raft a year ago? Marshall never tells, leaving the source of Sarah’s righteous anger partially clouded in mystery. The ending introduces an interesting paradox, as Sarah makes a choice between survival and emotional closure.

Marshall’s show-little-say-less approach to storytelling has its flaws. Some of the women, especially Beth and Sam, are a bit underdrawn. And you’re a smarter man than me if you can figure out how this multinational mix of women became friends in the first place. But these are quibbles. It’s hard enough to make a genuinely scary movie, but to do so without your story suffering from any significant credibility gaps? That’s a tall order.

The Descent is a damn fine horror movie, and the coming out party for an exciting new moviemaking talent.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen permalink
    January 25, 2007 9:01 pm

    I have to admit, that I haven’t really been interested in the horror-movie genre of the last decade. I watched Scream when it came out in 1996 and that was it. And I think the reason points to what MOWC said about the lack of character development in these films. What made The Descent so great was that it was a compelling story about the characters’ interpersonal relationships. And, it was compelling even at the beginning before the monsters came into the picture because it played out like an action-adventure/drama. I was scared and nervous for the characters when they were trying to navigate through the caves and passageways (the whole claustrophobia angle really played into that too) and when they then became trapped underground. And this was all way before the monsters even came out to play.

  2. January 29, 2007 4:23 pm

    I agree. One of the problems, I think, is that horror movies are so cheap to make and consistently profitable that there’s no incentive for studios, or independent filmmakers, to make them good. Why waste time with a decent script when you can patch one together around a cool design for a monster?

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