Review: The Descent (dir. by Neil Marshall)

Neil Marshall’s follow-up to his cult-favorite werewolf film, Dog Soldiers, has finally arrived in the US. The Descent doesn’t disappoint and I must say that Marshall’s filmmaking skills have dramatically improved since the last time he’s made and released a film. The Descent marks another notch on the resurgence of the horror genre’s return to its darker, meaner and exploitative past when filmmakers weren’t shy about pushing the boundaries.

The film begins with a tragedy that strikes at the heart of one of the women in the film. Sarah’s (played by Shauna MacDonald) tragic losses in the initial beginnings of the film becomes the emotional and psychological foundation that gives The Descent its emotional heft. It turns Marshall’s film from just your typical survival-horror film into one about interesting female group dynamics and the measures people would take in order to survive. The rest of the cast appear pretty quickly. There’s Sarah’s friend Beth (played by Alex Reid) who accompanies Sarah to the US at the invitation of their American friend Juno (played by the hot Natalie Mendoza). This trio of friends are soon joined the trio of Holly (Nora Jane-Noonan) and a pair of sisters in Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Becca (Saskia Mulder). With Juno taking lead in what was to be a bonding weekend for all the ladies, The Descent gradually brings about a heavy sense of dread that something is amiss not just at the activity they’re about to engage in but in the group dynamics within the female group.

The six ladies undertake a spelunking expedition in a cave system in the Appalachian Mountains (already the film takes its first nod of homage to another great film about survival, Deliverance). The outdoor scenes in the woods was actually shot in the forests of Scotland, but one could never guess and Marshall doesn’t linger overmuch in the bright, airy and safe outdoors. Juno soon leads her all-female spelunkers deep into the cave. Their descent into the darkening and gradually oppresive depths of the cave system takes abit longer than necessary, but just when the film was about to become a rehash of Cliffhanger, things suddenly become claustrophobic and the sense that every moment these ladies continue their descent the closer they put themselves into the arms of their inevitable doom.

Things go from bad to worse in a cave-in scene that’s sure to make those with problems of claustrophobia to close their eyes tightly and cover their ears. Except for a few slightly fake looking cave in rocks and debris, this cave-in scene will get hearts pumping and nerves racing. The scene is shot in a very up-close and intimate fashion that the audience has no choice but to feel as if they’re trapped in that barely there tunnel as it begins to collapse around Sarah and Juno. Once the scene is over the ladies soon find themselves cut-off from the only exit they know. One could almost see panic begin to set-in, nerves fray and tempers simmer on the participants. Juno, already established as the alpha-female of the group, continues to take charge of the situation but already her reckless and infectious bravado in the beginning of the film becomes more of a thin veneer hiding a personality that uses such traits to hide a much more duplicitous and cowardly persona.

From this moment of the film until the very final shot (well for the American version at least and more on that later), The Descent takes the meaning of oppresive claustrophobia and magnifies it to the nth degree. Gone are the daylight and open air of the outside forest. Even the upper levels of the cave would be a welcome sight for its stalactites and rock formations glittering from excess water runoff reflecting ambient light. Their descent deeper into the cavern system truly seems like a descent into that primordial fear everyone has since their earliest years: the fear of the dark and the unknown. Then to compound those primordial fears, Marshall adds in the internal conflict and discovered betrayals and secrets within the group dynamic. Its bad enough that these ladies have to contend with the terror of the surrounding darkness and what might dwell in its absence of light, but now personal baggage and secrets puts a new degree of danger to their chances of survival. Steel Magnolias this female-bonding film it is not.

Neil Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, really play with the senses and fears of not just the audience but of the characters trapped in the dark with only a dwindling supply of glowsticks and batteries for their flashlights. The scenes which evokes some of the biggest moments of fright and horror shows nothing on the screen but a blackened, lightless sequence. These scenes impact in terms of horror were compounded by Marshall’s excellent use of sound and its effect in confined, lightless spaces. The audience might not see whats going on in the scene, but we sure could hear every panting, panicky breath random trickling of water that gives an impression of blind, wate torture, and unknown rustles of movement that seem to come in from every direction. The Descent makes great use of the surround sound system in the theater. I noticed more than a few times people looking up and around the theater wondering if the sound is coming from those directions.

The boogeyman or men (and thats using the term very loosely), don’t make an appearance until almost halfway through the film, but the first look the audience get of the Crawlers is bound to give some viewers nightmakes for days to come. The Crawlers themselves were not fully explained and they’re barely seen until the very final reel of the film. Marshall’s decision to let the claustrophobia and disorienting darkness hint more than show in the early stages of their fight against the Crawlers was pivotal one since it kept the monstrous visage of the creatures from becoming overly familiar too soon. Marshall gives us hints of whats stalking the ladies and lets the audiences’ fevered imagination make up the rest. Once the Crawlers are seen abit more fully they’re appearance and behavior do not fail whatever imagined concepts the viewer made. These creatures are fast, vicious and more than abit hungry. The scenes where the Crawlers wreak bloody havoc on Sarah, Juno and the rest of the gang will delight and satisfy fans of gore while making those not used to them quesy to their stomach. Marshall doesn’t go overboard with the gore, but he does shoot and choreograph the violence in an almost lyrical fashion. He’s also made the characters fleshed out enough that the audience wants them to survive and cheer whenever they fight back with a modicum of success.

The Descent is such a refreshing, albeit one that’s also terrifying and pulse-pounding, horror film. It takes the recent resurgence of extreme horror, or goreror as some have called it, but keeps the balance between primal terror and gory disgust. Marshall does a fine job of keeping the story from descending too much into the realm of extreme exploitation. The exploitive nature of the film’s violence is still there, but it never becomes so much as to desensitize and turn away the people its trying to scare and entertain. The film doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. The premise has been done in films such as Alien and Predator. The look of the film once the group is trapped underground even has hints of Argento as Marshall and McCurdy make great use of lighting in an attempt to pierce the solid darkness of the cave.

The last couple years have given fans of the horror genre quite a good list of very good to great films heralding the return of horror to its very hard rated-R roots. Its a place that has been neglected too long by Hollywood and filmmakers, in general. What we really want are horror films that are not just about atmosphere and mood lighting, but also one that’s brutal, nerve-wracking, and adrenaline-pumping. Horror was meant to be in the realm of R and NC-17 and not in the level of PG-13. Neil Marshall has proven that his cult-classic Dog Soldiers was not a fluke. He has shown with The Descent that he’s more than a one-hit wonder. Here’s to hoping that Marshall continues to make great horror and genre films.

Song of the Day: A Princess (by Javier Navarrete)

The latest Song of the Day is from one of the best films of the past decade and, in my opinion, the best film of 2006. I speak of Pan’s Labyrinth by acclaimed Mexican-filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro.

“A Princess” was composed by Spanish composer Javier Navarrete and this particular piece of music from the film continues to use the main lullaby waltz-theme introduced in the beginning of the film. Where the music’s first time being heard by the audience is full of innocence and child-like magic in its tonal structure and melody in “A Princess” Navarrete dials back the innocent quality by adding in some of the hard-won wisdom the main character of Ofelia gains through her trials and tribulations throughout the film’s running time. While the song starts off with a sad and melancholy theme to its melody the song gradually moves back to it’s innocent and magical tone at it’s midway point to signify the main character’s final and complete transition from Ofelia to Princess Moanna.

It’s truly one of the best use of the leitmotif in a film score in quite a while. The fact that Navarrete was able to mine so man different emotional beats from a simple lullaby theme into one final distinct piece of music to end the film shows he was in tune with what director Guillermo Del Toro had in mind. He could easily have gone the usual fantasy music cliche of a huge number of brass and percussion to score the film, but instead went on a more subtle yet complex manner to accentuate a fairly simple fairy tale retelling which also happened to have many complexities in it’s narrative if one was willing to peel back the pages.