The Descent is this year’s (or maybe this season’s) “new face of horror” candidate. As near as I can determine, this whole “new face of horror” started in 1987 when Stephen King raved about Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. And that was a pretty good movie — at least so far as movies about haunted Rubik’s cubes go — but was it the “new face of horror?” Did it redefine the genre? No. Nor have any of the other films following in its hyperbole-driven wake that have staked a similar claim.
The game now seems to require that the candidate film be made for very little money. (If the movie pays off, of course, the director gets to make a proper film next time. In other words, High Tension begat The Hills Have Eyes; Cabin Fever begat Hostel and so on. It is thereby demonstrated how much these boys could do with a proper budget … or maybe not.) The oddity this time is that writer-director Neil Marshall already made one cultish film, Dog Soldiers (2002), but since that was scarcely released, I guess The Descent is his first real attempt at redefining the horror genre.
The question then arises as to how you redefine the genre by turning out what is essentially a more sober version of last year’s The Cave with an all-female cast. Better monsters and upping the gore quotient only go so far. Of course, if you put it up against Open Water (2003), Cabin Fever (2002), High Tension (2003) and Wolf Creek (2005) this becomes a work of pure genius. On any other level, it’s an OK splatter fest that takes too long to get to the point.
The film boasts a pretty nifty prologue where one of the women, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald, TV’s Spooks), suffers the trauma of her family being killed in a car crash. All right, so I never figured out exactly where all the copper pipes came from (an itinerant plumber maybe?), but the scene is quick, nasty and manages to evoke both Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980) and Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man (1983). Almost as good — though threatening to topple over into the unintentionally funny — is the immediate follow-up where Marshall shows his complete mastery of horror in a hospital subgenre.
And right after that, the plot kicks in and the whole movie goes glacial. Does Marshall intentionally herald this by evoking Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) at the start of this section? That’s possible, since the pacing is similar, but here it serves no point and is cheesed up by the occasional insertion of shock effects that are clearly meant to keep the audience from nodding off. The theory is apparently to establish the characters of the women and earn some credibility for The Descent as a feminist work. Alas, there’s a difference between theory and practice. The characters remain sketchy and the feminist cred is at best dubious for a movie that boasts two-plus climactic reels of women being battered, bludgeoned, hacked, flayed, mutilated, eaten by blind albino subterranean horrors and generally subjected to other indignities.
This tone not only graces the setup, but the first scenes in the cave when our heroines set out to explore. What seems like forever passes with nothing really happening except that they crawl around in this ill-lit cave. Sufferers of claustrophobia may experience a degree of unease from all this meandering in close quarters, but the rest of the audience is likely to have a virulent bout of ennui.
However, Marshall nearly redeems his film once the cave dwellers with lunch on their minds show up. There’s a bad moment of unintended humor when the ladies discover a cavern full of bones and one of them notes, “This is not good.” True enough. Fortunately, the payoff is flat-out, no-holds-barred horror. Marshall’s monsters are definitely scary — though he ultimately shows too much of them — and their actions are horrifically inimical to good fellowship where the spelunking sextet are concerned. The final sections of The Descent — which manage to evoke Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and even Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) — are bloody, brutal and tense.
Marshall may not have made the deep-dish horror flick he perhaps thought he was making — the film obviously intends to be more than a B-level bloodbath — but he has managed to pull off a splattery last act that’s all anyone could hope for with the genre. Horror fans will want to see The Descent for this reason alone, and many will forgive the tedium that precedes it, but few are apt to be convinced that Marshall has reinvented the wheel. Rated R for strong violence/gore and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke