2006Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid
or all the things that can be said of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and there are many, the one perhaps least expected is that the movie is among the most patient of the summer—patient in craft, patient in suspense, patient in storytelling sensibility. It’s nearly an hour before the narrative hook is in full kick, and even then the movie pauses periodically to check in on its players, six women who venture into an uncharted cave in the Appalachians on a much-needed holiday. They are not a particularly interesting congregation, a nondescript group of young, richly proportioned 20-somethings, but they do seem to have at least some independent minds among them, and for that we’re grateful.
The movie is the latest in a long tradition of low-budget horror films, this one an import from Britain originally released there more than a year ago. It’s drawn the inevitable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project and 28 Days Later, two movies more artful in their marketing campaigns alone than anything The Descent can muster, but the parallels do exist, especially in the first half. It opens bluntly with an unexpected tragedy affecting Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), the closest thing the film offers to a heroine, and cuts immediately thereafter to a year-later excursion in the wilderness. Six women of varying unions collect reluctantly and enter a cave supposedly charted as a tourist attraction. They go down intently and stay that way for the better part of a half hour before they start to freak (that their return path has imploded is but one development the group takes poorly).
Things go from bad to worse (dead ends turn into broken legs and so on), and in the movie’s quiet descent from anxious cheer into intense fear and loathing, it appears as if it will develop into an Open Water-esque introverted thriller. Alas, the film’s final third is more interested in the material culprit of the menace than any of its minimalist predecessors, and for better or worse, the increasingly distressed women catch a glimpse of a little white creature apparently cleaning itself down a secluded tunnel. It’s not alone, and soon a colony of man-sized, Orc-like beasts notice the women’s presence and goes to work. Blood squirts freely, spleens become brunch, and the remaining women separate themselves conveniently all over the cave.
Does the movie really need its monsters? Since the credits reveal the services of “senior prosthetic makeup artist” were required, we know it’s only a matter of time before they appear, but with their entrance the film abandons the calculated understatement that had heretofore driven its narrative. Marshall, who made his debut four years ago with Dog Soldiers—a bloody confection with lower production values and much more carnage than The Descent—ultimately comes closest to Pitch Black, the glum, tense creature feature that made a name for Vin Diesel. Was Marshall unwilling to take the risk of letting down his bourgeoning cult fan base by heading down a more psychological route? The two halves of the film don’t make sense paired so abruptly, and though they piece together in the end, their up-and-down intensity is winding and unnecessarily scattershot.
Marshall’s women are similarly mercurial, though the devices through which he constructs them are slightly more obvious. “I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider,” one of them declares early on, and she’s not incorrect. Less Lara Croft and more Jane Fonda’s Abs, Buns & Thighs, for all their no-bullshit fronting, even the most hardcode of the climbers is made up with saucy eye liner and complementary helmet hair. For every woman who kicks some ghoulish ass, another falls just as easily and helplessly.
To Marshall’s credit, the requisite (white) T-shirts are absent, as is the don’t-peek homoeroticism, although there is a prominent sequence involving two women wrestling in a pool of fresh, chunky blood. And the movie is willing to consider, at least superficially, the feminist undertow inherent in a movie about six young women attacked by a rogue colony composed chiefly of killer males. Though they often lack command when entrails begin to flutter about, internal issues among the women drive the narrative’s arc even as the film takes more conventional avenues in its final third. The issues themselves—which provide some of the film’s most unexpected (and unusual) conflicts—eventually morph into a kooky revenge fantasy that I would call fetishistic if it weren’t part of a movie so bizarrely realized in the first place. With a late shot of Sarah covered in blood and wielding a pickaxe that would have made Carrie cringe, Marshall composes the film’s most curious image, with implications that expand in so many different directions that it’s impossible to posit what exactly he intended.
But there’s something to be said for the film’s complexity in that respect, especially as part of a genre that has recently regressed into cautionary tales for young girls after a self-aware streak in the mid-’90s. It plays on stereotypes, but also with them. And as top-heavy as the movie is in structure, it’s never disjointed, mostly just minimalist in setup and grandiose (perhaps too much) in payoff. Who knows why Marshall made the movie he did? At the very least, he’s thinking, and that’s more than can be said for the better part of his contemporaries.
The Descent is playing in theatres across the country.