Tuesday, October 7, 2008

#81: The Descent


The Descent
Written and Directed by Neil Marshall
Released August 4, 2006

If it had just been a film about rock climbing and spelunking, The Descent would have done suitably well as a suspenseful action movie. For pretty much the first hour of the film, that's what we're dealing with, and writer/director Neil Marshall does a fantastic job of creating a tense, unsettling atmosphere in a setting (dark, twisting caves) that couldn't have been easy in which to film or recreate (apparently, may of the realistic sets were polystyrene models).

The film begins with a tragic accident that happens after a group of friends goes rafting, leaving Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) mourning the loss of her husband and daughter. The credits roll, and then we rejoin this group of 6 women one year later, as they prepare a cave exploring trip in attempt to help the friend get back to her former self.

The fact that their trip takes place in the Appalachian wilderness is just the first of a handful of nods to Deliverance, though Marshall wisely stops short of showing condescending scenes of inbred locals trying to impose a sense of dread. Instead, he wisely sets up subtle scenes that show the kind of tough, adventurous women we're following, like showing how curious - rather than grossed out - they are by the corpse of an elk.

Things become complicated once the group begins their expedition, primarily because of the deception of Juno (Natalie Mendoza) in leading them to a cave not on their map. The eventual reveal that the women have bigger fish to fry, namely a group of bat-like humans called "crawlers", filmed through an infrared camera by one of the characters, is incredibly effective and frightening. Suddenly, this Deliverance homage gets a big taste of Aliens thrown into the mix, and the suspense movie breaks out into a full fledged, gore filled horror movie.

While everything from the performances to the bursts of violence help build the horror, one of the most effective aspects of creating and sustaining tension is the use of lighting. Marshall makes the wise choice of making it look like the only sources of light in the picture are the sources the climbers are carrying with them. The fact that there is so much surrounding darkness in many of the scenes adds to the feeling of claustrophobia and impending danger.

I remember reading reviews when The Descent was first released that made great mention of the fact that the cast was largely female. I guess that could be important to note, but maybe more because of the fact that the actors and their characters are so tough that their sexuality becomes irrelevant. If anything, Marshall's film is remarkable for not being about a group of women who love to get together, drink cosmos and talk about shopping, and it works so well that it proves that you don't need a big breasted female "superhero" like Lara Croft to sell a movie about women who get dirty, take action and kick ass.

For more on The Descent:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site
- Buy the DVD.

The official trailer for The Descent:

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