The Descent

4 stars


10th July 2005

Hollywood's lack of vision when it comes to the horror genre is starting to grate. We've already had remakes of Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Amityville Horror in the last few years, not to mention the influx of American remade Japanese shockers - even before The Descent had begun, the first two trailers were both proudly proclaimed to be 'from the author of The Ring', something I'm getting a little sick of hearing of late. Luckily, there's still some homegrown talent we can rely on, including one such Brit, Neil Marshall, director of the superbly trashy Dog Soldiers. No werewolves this time; instead Marshall takes us deep underground to face up to something much more primitive, something that taps into the fear of almost every soul on the planet, namely the dark and the evil that dwells within. Even the most hardened horror buffs will be throwing a quick glance under the bed after this.

Like his sophomore effort, The Descent is a deliciously trashy romp with a rough script and clear budget limitations, not to mention a perfect example of just how well you can execute a relatively simple idea. The foul-mouthed squaddies of Dog Soldiers are replaced by six thrill-seeking girls from up and down the country who meet once a year to undertake a new and exciting adventure. This year's thrill? Cave exploring. The twist? These are uncharted caves, something that only becomes apparent when it becomes clear that their way out is blocked, and they are in fact, fucked. As the team gets deeper and deeper and the walls get closer and closer, they discover something that wasn't mentioned in the Extreme Sports For Beginners manual - subhuman cave dwellers with a taste for blood and guts. Perhaps hand gliding would have been a safer bet.

Not exactly high concept material, granted, but if there's one thing that Marshall has become known for it's building turtle-headed tension and delivering on the shock and gore, and in these respects, The Descent doesn't disappoint. Indeed, even before we've been formally introduced to our movie's monsters this evening, there's plenty of finger-chewing moments, including a truly unnerving sequence where the girls crawl their way through a passage barely big enough to accommodate their lithe bodies - it doesn't make easy viewing for claustrophobics, that's for sure. As soon as the action moves underground, the only light seen on screen is the light that the characters produce, whether from helmet-mounted torches, flares or the infra-red function on their camcorder - there are no convenient rays of sunlight under several feet of rock and earth - and while it might often make for a disorientating experience, it ratchets up the fright factor considerably. In fact, such is the quality of the dank-ridden cave environment, there's probably a decent movie here to be made without any beasties at all. Hollywood would probably put Sylvester Stallone in it and call it 'The Spelunker', but there you go.

Any horror movie that lets its defences down early and is prepared to show off its creatures in full will usually face the same criticism that less is more, but in the case of The Descent, you'll only wish they return to the shadows because they're so damn nasty out in the open. Looking like the bastard offspring of Gollum and a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creation (not to mention the sewer creatures from the Chronicles of Riddick videogame), the crawlers might provide a few predictable shocks - lurking round corners, overhead etc. - but they're truly frightening to watch when they're disturbed. There are no cutaways or protruding rocks masking the gore here; every bone-snapping, head-smashing, throat-piercing instance of violence is simply revelled in - Marshall is happy to spurt buckets of blood for your enjoyment. Thankfully you won't find any ropey CGI crawlers to yank you out of your deep state of terror - each ugly little bastard is nothing more than a midget in a suit with a bit of prosthesis here and there. Budget limitation or not, they still look genuinely gruesome.

You can level all sorts of accusations at it if you like - the characters are rather flat and interchangeable, the affair subplot unnecessary and the ending a little lazy - but The Descent is nonetheless a shocking and highly taut British horror movie, with occasional flashes of genius and the odd tip of the hat to past masters of the genre. Whether or not Marshall will end up being mentioned in the same breath as messyrs Carpenter and Romero depends on whether or not the studios are willing to give him either the sponds to create a truly legendary movie, or a franchise worthy of his expertise. He's professed an interest in taking the reigns of the Alien series, so why not let him have his shot at the big time? With all the Hideo Nakata wannabes doing the rounds at the moment, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather shit my pants for. Ali

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