The British film The Descent is the best of this year’s crop of horror movies, but that’s not saying much. What it understands better than the others is that evocative atmosphere is the best way to ratchet up the tension. If it had delved as deeply into its characters as it does under the earth, and if its monsters were better, we really would have had something.
Six friends are brought together each year for some extreme adventuring by their leader, Juno, Natalie Jackson Mendoza. Considering that the friends are all women, athletic, and twenty-something, we might have expected a cheesecake festival. Instead, though Juno is gorgeous, flexible, and chesty, the other women are plausible human beings. An all-female cast might beg a post-feminist critique, but regardless of what the breathless critical community is saying, there’s not enough material here to merit one. I dissent on Descent .
One year ago, one of the six, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) lost her husband and daughter in a gory auto accident. Now, she is fragile and troubled by flashbacks. If she thinks she has bad memories now…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Her friends have convinced Sarah that another adventure would be good therapy. This time, Juno is taking them spelunking. They meet for a hug-in at a cabin in the Appalachians, a scene meant to establish the characters; but three of them are so ill-defined, it’s hard to tell them apart, especially when they put on helmets.
When the women enter the cave, cinematographer Sam McCurdy suspends their tiny helmet lights in compositions filled with smothering, oppressive dark. Like an underground version of the film Poseidon , each chamber is replete with danger: black pools, bottomless pits, walls of glistening rivulets, and a passage so narrow you squeeze through it like a birth canal. That sequence, where one character gets stuck and begins to hyperventilate, is one of the best of its type. Would it weaken the illusion if I told you the cave existed almost exclusively on a sound stage, and that it’s not rock, but polystyrene? Not at all.
The film’s ad campaign does not reveal the creature the women encounter, so I’ll just say that it would look at home on the cover of The Weekly World News. It’s a smart move that the Boogeyman is rendered without computer graphics. It works best when only glimpsed, especially in long-shot, leaving our imaginations to sketch in the rest. When fully revealed, the monster — or is it monsters? — is a letdown, and its governing rules don’t add up. Is it tough, or is it a cream puff? Wouldn’t it have a better sense of touch, and of temperature? How, exactly, is it able to climb on the…but no, I’ve said too much already.
The Descent gets monotonous with its jack-in-the-box shocks. Critic Pauline Kael called these "boo" movies; Roger Ebert dubs them "Gotcha" flicks. More effective are the film’s gross-out moments, such as something unconscionable that happens to a leg. It would please writer/director Neil Marshall if you thought of Deliverance; he has cited that film as a key influence.
Genre fans might also note that near the movie’s end, one of the characters becomes hyper-masculanized and dripping with ichor from head to toe – essentially Ellen Ripley and Carrie White in the same body. An inexperienced director is wise to look to his betters. Marshall knows how to do that, and for the most part, he gets the job done.
The Descent is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast by going to wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.