Shauna McDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, Myanna Buring, Alex Reid.
7th November, 2005.
2.35:1 (anamorphic widescreen).
5.1 Dolby Digital/5.1 DTS
English, English subtitles.
The publicist who suggested 'Slippery When Wet' died hard.
The line between genius and madness is a thin one, so they say. Neil Marshall has so far stayed on the right side of this line and has given us Dog Soldiers and now, The Descent. I'm going to enjoy them while I can, because if he keeps knocking out horror films like this he's soon going to be gnawing at his face while smearing his groin in peanut butter and ramming a stuffed swordfish into his anus. Or whatever mad people do in the privacy of their homes.
The Descent follows a group of six women on a caving expedition in the Appalachians that goes horribly wrong. Well, if it went right, the film would be a bit shit, wouldn't it? There's Sarah (McDonald), the film's main protagonist, still suffering from a personal loss. Beth (Reid) is Sarah's best friend, a reluctant tagalong duty-bound to try and look after her. Juno (Mendoza) is the formidable and ambitious organiser, hoping to get Sarah back to normal. Holly (Noone) is the punky adrenaline junkie looking for her next hit. Rebecca (Mulder) and Sam (Buring) are sisters taking time off from their studies to go deep underground and hang off ropes to relax. As you do.
"What do you mean, you've shat yourself?"
The cinematography, right from the off, is beautiful. Marshall obviously has a good sense of space. We get some nice airborne views of the wilderness and wide shots of the girls as a group and the outdoors. This is totally opposite to later in the film, where everything is close up and cramped. The colour of the environments are also at odds, with the surface being bright but slightly washed out, and underground offering vivid colours and darkness with real, appreciable depth. Despite its low budget, the film looks a lot better than Dog Soldiers (Marshall's previous effort), more professional and of a higher quality. An excellent touch is the colour coding of the girls underground, with each one having a signature light source. Whether it is luminous green glow sticks, guttering crimson flares, flickering yellow flame or the dimming beam of a torch, it makes it easy to identify who you're looking at immediately in the darkness.
Special mention goes out to the caves themselves, I don't think I've seen such a claustrophobic environment in a long time, and the variety present offers some brief respite from the claustrophobia, though the looming, suffocating darkness is never far away. Feelings of isolation and fear only increase as the quarters get tighter. The budget only reveals itself in some of the CGI, which is admittedly quite poor, although saying that the first CGI effect is pretty good and most of it isn't too shabby at all.
"What do we reckon, girls? Chlamydia?"
Whoever did the music should have the honour of being lauded copiously in this review, and so I shall, until strong men weep. David Julyan, take a bow. The music in this film is brilliant stuff, which for once is actually quite subtle and gently echoes the images instead of fucking stamping all over them with cry-you-bastard-violins and other such blatant wankery. It sets a nice undertone, slightly haunting and foreboding even before things begin to go Pete Tong, and during later scenes the jagged, downward-spiralling rhythms and hard, frenetic drumbeats whet the sharp edge of the action and make it more frantic than it already is.
The action is vicious and primal, there's no nice neat choreography, it's all savage animalistic stuff. There's some truly gruesome moments and though the film isn't swimming in gore, it's undeniably here in force. Accentuated by quick jump cuts, which offer the best of both worlds by emphasising speed but remaining steady and offering a clear view of the violence. It's horrible stuff, very realistic and gritty, not the sort of thing you see in Hollywood films with opponents swapping blows but a melee of fists and elbows and knees, with axes, teeth and knives put to good use in extreme close quarters. The improvisation also has the ring of real life, with bone clubs and flares used to bludgeon and burn respectively, the sort of stuff you'd do; not because it's a super-effective ninja technique but because it's the closest thing to hand.
The Krypton Factor sometimes went too far.
The pace slowly builds up, with the first half being a slow, calm affair which changes abruptly into an unrelenting torrent of horror. Dog Soldiers offered you humour between scares, to relieve the tension, but that's been tossed out in favour of more terror in this film. The tension ratchets up with every scene, and you might think you're adept at spotting things coming, but the off-tempo instances will catch you out and smack you right across the face.
The cast had a uniformly solid script to work with, and even the worst performance is still pretty good. Marshall doesn't use anyone famous, and the thing that shocked me is that British actresses play the British characters. No Yanks trying to do Brit accents here! This rocked my world, and I wasn't sure I could cope with seeing an actual British person playing a British character, but I've managed to come to terms with it. Mendoza, the only Yank in the film, gets to play an American character, and because everyone is at home with their roles, it makes them much more effective. The original trio of Juno, Beth and Sarah are the best characters, with the other three joining later on and being a little shallow as a result, but the group interaction is very believable, very realistic and very human.
It took Carrie ages to dig herself out.
This may shock some of you, but this is a horror film starring women who don't run around screaming and being useless. They don't take their clothes off, either. I know, I was gutted too, but I think I'll live. They're athletic, physically capable women, with well rounded, um, characters. They're not masculine, not even remotely, they are unmistakaby feminine as well as being tough and strong. They're not over-achieving feminist bitches. Nor are they the sobbing useless baggage of most horror films. You may find it hard to believe that this is true, that women alone can carry a horror film, and that they can fight and cope effectively with physical danger. Well they can, and do, and men can (by a huge
mental effort) somehow manage to bridge that gender divide and empathise with them. No, really.
Those that can't, don't worry, you don't have to put your hands up, you sexist fuckwits will reveal yourselves soon enough.
One of the most character-driven horrors I have ever seen, with effective scares, lots of tension, and a brilliant ending that fits the film perfectly. The splintering of the group and their resulting conflicts is shown unflinchingly, and the dangerous, cramped cave environment only brings home the desperation and amoral choices necessary for survival. You never get the feeling that they are doing or saying something for the sake of the plot, and the pure visceral anger of the fights will have you clenching your fists. The lighting does wonders for the atmosphere, though they can't have just used realistic lighting for every scene, it certainly looks like they did. Also of note are the homages, small skilful nods to other horror films carried out in a variety of ways. Have fun trying to spot them all, because I still am.
Top stuff all round.
Periods can be a nightmare.
For those of you who feel motivated to say, "Horror films don't scare me." I can only say this. You haven't seen many horror films, or you're totally lacking in imagination and empathy, or best of all, you're so pathetic you have to pretend not to be scared. Which is a pretty sad state of affairs. Horror films send their long, pale fingers seeking into the dark recesses of the mind and they press those little pressure points that motivate us all, those instinctual buttons that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. That makes you shiver. That makes your heart race as you step into the dark. Live with it.
The DVD is a pretty good set, two discs, normal case within a flimsy slipcase which will be ruined and in the bin shortly. No loss, as the covers are the same. On the first disc, you have the film and two commentaries, one by Marshall and most of the cast, the other by Marshall and some important members of the crew. The former is a good laugh, with Marshall trying to keep a straight face amid some tipsy stars. It actually manages to be amusing and informative at the same time, but the real meat is in the second commentary, which is full of info about every aspect of the film, and features some nice anecdotes as well as interesting observations from Marshall et al. Even the menu is nicely designed, with a torch beam picking out options scrawled in chalk on a rock face.
The second disc's menu is similar, an infra-red camera view of the options, complete with timer, blinking 'record' light and decreasing battery level. The Making Of features the principal cast and crew, and covers quite a lot in its forty-minute length, from special effects to set design, training to script. There are nine deleted/extended scenes, none of which are anything special. The Blooper Reel is fucking funny though, five minutes of fuck ups, piss takes and mistakes energised by some inoffensive rock music. Worth repeated viewing, but then I'm the same bloke who set his friends on fire in school for laughs, so make of it what you will.
There's a nice Scene/Storyboard comparison, showing them together on the screen, the storyboard flicking over to the next panel as the scene progresses, quite interesting even if you're not a big film freak like me. The Cast and Crew Biographies are the usual bumf, and there's a stills gallery and three trailers if you really can't get enough. And, of course, an Easter Egg.
Great horror film, good DVD set. Not exactly expensive, either.
Even the cave wanted them dead.