Natalie Jackson Mendoza
Trivia Shot in Scotland and Pinewood Studios.
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The Descent (2005)
21st Jun 05
Trapped underground when an unexpected rock fall blocks their exit, six girls on a caving holiday suddenly find themselves hunted by a race of fearless, hungry predators adapted to living in the dark…
In 2002, Neil Marshall directed a low-budget film called Dog Soldiers. The plot was simple; take a close-knit group of six men, strand them in the wilderness and expose them to hostile monsters, ie werewolves. The film received a healthy reception both critically and financially and gradually wound it's way towards it's final cult destination.
Cut to 2005, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Marshall's third film, The Descent, in which a close group of six women are stranded in a cave and exposed to hostile underdwellers, is an exact blueprint rip-off of his earlier film. Not so much 'Dog Soldiers' as 'Bitch Potholers'. You could be forgiven for thinking that then, but you'd also be wrong, because this film is an extremely different beast altogether. The Descent is much more streamlined. This film's lean. It's mean. And it's as scary as hell.
The opening wild river rapid ride grabs you right from the off as we're introduced to the three friends Sarah, Juno and Beth on an adventure trip. Riding the white water rapids, the three girls soon reach a quiet spot of the river to bank their dinghy and hook up with Sarah's husband Paul and daughter Jessica. Juno and Beth offer to finish up while Sarah, Paul and Jessica get into the car to drive back to the hotel.
Unfortunately they never reach the hotel. In one of the most shocking car crashes ever put to film (you will feel your right leg involuntarily move in an effort to hit the brakes yourself when you see it!) both Sarah's husband and daughter are killed instantly, whilst Sarah herself is badly injured. Waking later in hospital, she runs into the corridor only to learn that her loved ones didn't make it and she collapses into Beth's arms as Juno looks on in despair.
One year later, and Sarah and Beth travel to the Appalachian Mountains to meet up with Juno for a potholing expedition - the first time Juno and Sarah have seen each other since the incident. There they meet up with Scandinavian half-sisters Rebecca and Sam and the obligatory reckless one, Holly the base-jumper.
After a brief bonding night at the cabin, the six girls head off in their 4x4s the next morning to explore the caves, and following a slight hesitation ("I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider!" says Beth when she sees the entrance) they abseil down to begin their exploration. Sure it's dark, dingy and very claustrophobic down there, but these aren't your average 'shriek-at-spiders' horror film girlies we're so used to seeing, and it's going to take a lot more than a colony of bats to scare off these potholers.
The film has a leisurely pace for it's opening half an hour or so, settling for characterisation over unnecassary plot developments, and as we get to spend some time with the group, the girls become more real and genuine. Their dialogue and riffing is natural, mainly light-hearted at first, but as things begin to go wrong when their entrance tunnel collapses, we just know that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Thankfully, Marshall is happy to take his time with his monster reveal too. When the crawlers do appear, at first all we get is noise, hints of childish giggles, and flashes of white flesh. There's a small Gollum moment of a man-like figure crouching on the rocks, but the first close-up reveal of the cannibalistic underdweller directly preceding the initial attack will soon become one of THE classic 'jump' moments of all time. I personally haven't involuntarily flinched and yelled out swear words like that since I touched a dodgy electrical cable at the back of a TV in Cairns ten years ago, and was flung six feet across the room. The resulting scrap between the 'six chicks with picks' and the attacking crawlers knocks the hell out of anything in 28 Days Later, the jump-cut editing, sound effects and general disorientation of the scene is astounding, and it is made even more emotionally effective when one of the girls makes her accidental slip at the end of the battle.
The monsters are mostly great, only now and then do you get the impression of a man (or, at one point, a woman!) in a suit. Keeping to Ridley Scott's Alien template of hiding the monsters in the shadows at first before bringing them out into the open serves the film well.
The cast are pretty much universally fantastic too. Shauna MacDonald is perfect in the lead role of Sarah, her character all sweet and hesitant at first before descending (see, it's not just about the descent into the cave itself!) into savage insanity in the blink of a snarl. Alex Reid is solid as Sarah's best friend Beth, Natalie Jackson Mendoza is excellent as pushy Juno (think Lucy Lui meets Michelle Rodriguez!) and Nora-Jane Noone (The Magdalene Sisters) shines as the reckless thrill-seeker Holly.
Directorially, this film is also a huge step-up from Dog Soldiers for Neil Marshall. As good as that film was, The Descent is leap years ahead in style, confidence, storytelling and cast performances. Only the odd dodgy CGI effect distracts, but most of these take place in the first 25 minutes anyway. By allowing his characters to develop and keeping the threat hidden for much of the first half of the film, Marshall engages us emotionally, enabling us to genuinely care for each of the girls as they desparately search for a way out. As a perfect balancing act, he also piles on heaps and heaps of gore (from eye gouging to skull smashing) so us 'unfeeling' gorehounds are more than happy too.
But, cast performances, effective monsters, and efficient direction aside, it's the jump moments that really stand out and make this film special. I personally cannot remember a film that contained so many effective scare shots. There are at least four jump moments in the first 25 minutes, and that's before the girls even enter the first inner cave...
The Descent is truly one of the best (if not the best) British horror films of the last ten years, and not only that but it's managed it with an all-female cast too. Who says you need a man about the (horror) house? If Dog Soldiers was a Boys Own Fantasy comic book, then this is the gore-soaked equivalent of Buntie. It could well be the first horror film that will have girls dragging their boyfriends to see instead of the other way round, and that can only be a good thing.
Your average film magazine will probably give this film 4 Stars, as it has to be said it's extreme nature and excessive gore effects will probably lose it a star or two in the more commercial sector. We at eatmybrains are not your average film magazine though, so tough - we give this baby the full five stars all the way. See it.
(View our exclusive video interview with the director of The Descent, Neil Marshall here).