When Neil Marshall’s super-fun, homage-laden howler, Dog Soldiers, tore through screens in 2002, his name rightly became linked with fresh talent in horror. Three years later, Marshall follows suit with the deadly serious The Descent, proof that despite an acclaimed start, the best was yet to come. Where the former pitted an almost all-male cast against a bunch of beasties in a lycanthropic lock-down in the Scottish Highlands, the latter leads ladies on a caving nightmare in the Appalachian Mountains. Werewolves are replaced by humanoid cave-dwellers, though that’s not the only aspect proving this film contains more than a case of ‘mild peril.’
The scene is set as six good friends, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), enjoy a spot of white-water rafting. We see they are a close-knit group whose bond of friendship is strong and fearless. Point made. The Casualty-style beginning hints at impending doom, and sure enough, scenes of girly buddies at one with nature give way to a shock tragedy which places Sarah at the fore, stepping forward as our tragic heroine. A year later, hard-nosed self-appointed group leader, Juno, arranges a caving adventure sure to reinforce group bonds whilst simultaneously giving a sense of individual achievement. Hmm. No points for guessing the exact opposite happens as our courageous cavers confront just about every calamity possible. And that’s before even the creatures make an appearance.
It soon becomes apparent that Juno has an ulterior motive for the trip, and as such it descends into a suitably hellish nightmare. More than just a creature feature, Marshall plays on every conceivable angle to garner wince-inducing horror. The phrase ‘edge-of-your-seat’ could’ve been coined for this very film. With the confidence of one who knows he is creating a superbly effective film, Marshall splits The Descent into halves. The first half sees the horror generated by real-life fears as we are plunged into the omnipresent darkness. When the point of entry is blocked, we have the fear of entrapment to add to the extreme claustrophobia. As if that’s not enough, we have the finely converged terror of immense space and drop.(Is it worse not to be able to see what is touching you or the vast spaces around you?) The second half sees the pace cranked right up as the creatures (crawlers) make their presence felt as the horror becomes physical, with your eyes delivering the gory goods in place of mentally suggestive fears.
Differentiating so precisely between terrors probably sounds like a recipe for a bizarre mess, and indeed so easily could this have been the case. Fortunately, we are in more than capable hands as Marshall adeptly weaves the many facets of his cleverly constructed horror. Those finicky about plot will find that not everything satisfactorily adds up, but to be honest, like the dialogue, you get by knowing the effort has gone into the areas that he is clearly both passionate about and skilled in. What Marshall’s crafted here is a tight and classy creature feature where monsters matter (these lithe humanoids prove the devolution of your own kind is something to be truly feared), and where his flawless judgement works your fears into overdrive, with perfectly timed jumps and plenty of gore. The result is, simply, an exercise in successful horror.
Expertly constructed fright-fest which serves as proof that there is still talent in the genre, all it takes is some genuine ability 9/10