Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2006

The land down under

Neil Marshall takes us on a 'Descent' into a dark claustrophobic nightmare

The Descent
Lionsgate Films
Director: Neil Marshall
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring and Nora-Jane Noone
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Opened August 4, 2006
(out of four)

There is a subtle but significant difference between the kind of movie The Descent is, and the kind of movie Lionsgate Films wants you to think it is. They want us to believe that it is in the same vein as the Saw franchise or January's Hostel. The ads openly boast about horror films' controversial level of blood and gore - and by that criterion, The Descent certainly fits the bill. But what the former two lack in intelligence and substance, The Descent makes up for. This is not simply a movie where scary things jump out of the darkness - this movie is the darkness.

From the minute our six heroines take the plunge into a never-before-discovered cave in the Appalachian Mountains they (and we) are surrounded by it. Sources of light are hard to come by down there, and writer/director Neil Marshall relishes it.

Shots are composed in such a way that pitch black envelops the characters at every turn - and we see only what they see, which isn't much. They spend most of their time crawling through cracks and crevices looking for salvation from this hellish underworld, with nary a clue as to what lies ahead of them. And I haven't even gotten to the monsters yet.

The result is a phenomenally claustrophobic atmosphere that brilliantly heightens the tension once things finally do start to go bump in the night. The claustrophobia is a shock to the system for them and for us; we spend the first 20 minutes comfortably outdoors during the obligatory slice-of-life expository scenes. But once we make our descent, there's no turning back - we're going to spend the next 90 minutes stuck in the dark, in very tight spaces. And I still haven't gotten to the monsters yet.

Did I mention the characters are all lost? I didn't. Well, the characters are all lost. They think they know what they're doing, but they don't - they made a wrong turn somewhere, and somehow they've got to find their way out.

This cave-diving expedition was supposed to be a vacation - planned by the resident tough girl, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) as a sort of present for her friend Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who lost her husband and daughter in a freak accident a year earlier. This is to be her reprieve from grief, but it is anything but.

What sets The Descent apart from the majority of modern horror is that it actually uses its dramatic effects for more than just cheap scares. Most horror flicks gloss over the thematic and psychological elements that are staring us right in the face, resulting in an ultimately empty experience. But with The Descent, Marshall uses every bit of his atmosphere to create a foreboding presence. The darkness of the caves, the echos, the hollow, ambiguous silence - it all combines to create a deep psychological tension.

The Descent offers plenty of allegorical and metaphorical value as well - the title of the movie suggests "descents" into the soul, the mind, hell itself, among others - but for now, I won't go there. That's for post-viewing discussion and dissection, and we can go to online message boards to get into all that. But suffice it to say that Marshall has a much deeper understanding of what is dark and threatening than most horror directors.

There are people who think that The Descent is the second coming of Alien, or even movies like Deliverance. Well, it's not. It's one of the best horror movies to come around in a long time, but I find certain comparisons to be a bit of a stretch.

There was a greater sense of urgency in those other movies, and there was more at stake - not to mention more fleshed-out characters and more complete storylines. There are times when The Descent is too stuck in horror-movie mode. For instance, one of the girls, we discover early on, is a med student, soon to be a doctor. Gee, I wonder if that will come in handy later on in the plot!

And, of course, we still get lines like, "It's the dark - it plays tricks on you!" or my favorite, "What's wrong with her? She looks like she's seen a ghost!" Regardless, occasional lapses in the screenplay shouldn't detract from the film's many strengths.

Earlier I mentioned the Saw franchise - and I think that's a fitting contrast for this movie. The Descent contains the material and emotional responses of which the Saw movies only scratch the surface. When Jigsaw has done all his business, we can only laugh at the cheap psychological conceit. Saw may be more inventive in coming up with different ways to kill, maim and disembody human beings, but when all is said and done, who cares? The Descent, for all its blood and guts, is more concerned with moodiness and human terror, and Neil Marshall succeeds by handling his story with a bit more complexity than we could reasonably expect - and he provides us with some striking visual bravura along the way. Saw, and no doubt its upcoming third installment, may be more "shocking" and gory, but The Descent stays with you.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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