Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Descent


Dir: Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers)

I actually dragged myself to a theater.

Nothing wrong with some horror movie action. Lionsgate has been pretty good about their releases in recent years, with the very watchable Saw and the truly brilliant Hostel. This is a low budget British film that is earning lots of well deserved praise. Horror is about concept and editing, and The Descent delivers on both.

Six women go spelunking. Inside, there are some nasty things. That's your plot.

Most noteworthy about the film is the inspired decision to cast all women, none of whom is sexualized. This is the anti-Hostel (that was sarcasm above), where the women are completely capable, independent, and kick ass. In these films, one expects women to either be naked and in distress or naked and evil, but always sexualized. But not even a veneer of that exists in The Descent. It is so refreshing, might I suggest even revolutionary to see such casting and writing? The marketing folks must have had some issues with it, and lots of 14 year old boys are going to be mad. Therefore, the film should be supported for its casting alone.

The suspense is there too. The nasty things take their time showing up, and the most tense moments involve completely plausible dangers of caving in the film's second act. Like Jaws, the events seem real in the early going. Horror films rarely overtly play upon universal fears, opting for phantasm. But claustrophobia and fear of the dark will hit anybody. The Descent's best moments are when it explores those themes.

The menace below ground is effective too. Like 28 Days Later, make-up is minimal, but mood, camera, lighting and editing do the trick. The effect is lost over time, as the movie moves into a Aliens-like killing spree. But even if that bit is less terrorizing, it is still pretty fun to watch, almost like the movie is letting us off the hook from the really suspensful moments earlier and settling into familar territory.

The script can certainly be critiqued for contrivances and lack of attention to character motivation. It is much better than 28 Days Later, where such issues overwhelmed the dramatic effect of the horror and made the film laughably bad, but such things are not the strength of the filmmakers. So I won't give The Descent an Oscar. But as a fan of the low budget horror genre, here is a smart and sound entry that captures the essence of what scares us. For those with an interest, there are lots and lots of worse films playing right now.