The Descent
Director: Neil Marshall. Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Nora-Jane Noone, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll. Screenplay: Neil Marshall.

Photo © 2005 Celador Films/Pathé
Neil Marshall's The Descent is by many degrees the best wide-release film I've seen in a theater all summer. It's also a grueling spelunk into body horror and terrifying suspense, so don't expect long lines at the cineplex when you go and check it out. The film begins with one of those scenes that is both oblique and overt, like Morse code tapped out at top volume, in telegraphing a problematic tie between two characters: Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is almost certainly having a secret affair with the husband of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), a friend and comrade in outward-bound adventures like caving, hiking, and, in this sequence, whitewater rafting. Then, having introduced this kernel of conflict, the movie hastily overrides it with a whopper of unpredictable misery: Sarah's husband and daughter are killed in a car accident on the way home from the rafting trip. The construction of these two pre-credit sequences is tense, rich, and economical: are we right in surmising the adulterous liaison? Is Sarah surmising it, too? Is she probing her husband for an admission or an obvious lie, and is that why he is distracted enough to drive full-throttle into an oncoming truck? This type of boldface psychology and high-velocity exposition are often the stuff of strong, confident horror movies, as evidenced recently in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, and though The Descent trips itself up a bit more often than those films did, Marshall's movie is still powerful, patient, and terrifically calculated.

With its ghoulish backstory in place, rounded out by quick impressions of Sarah's rickety mental state and of the cloud of culpability still hovering around Juno, the action launches forward a full year, where the women reunite with four other friends for a trip inside an Appalachian cave complex. The rest of the party includes Beth (Alex Reid), the third member of the previous year's rafting party, and an obvious skeptic about Juno's integrity; a medical student named Sam (MyAnna Buring), with a protective and fawning older sister named Rebecca (Saskia Mulder); and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, of The Magdalene Sisters), a feral, spiky-haired endorphin junkie who is described, in a redolent Celluloid Closet sort of euphemism, as Juno's "protégé." Marshall and his most valuable accomplices, editor Jon Harris and cinematographer Sam McCurdy, flitter and trundle around the women's woodsy cabin long enough to put us on edge, but there is still something muddy and slack about these group scenes; clearly, distinct characterization isn't what the movie's after, but they also aren't taut enough to resonate with Wolf Creek's sense of a pungent, insistent material world about to bite back bitterly against some heedless humans. Juno's decision the next morning to jettison her guidebook to the cave system before leading her party inside is exactly what it looks like—graceless exposition—but once the women have rappeled downward into this gritty, drippy underground maw, the movie becomes as buff, toned, and nimble as its protagonists. Every whiff of tension or rivalry takes on a capacity for fright, as the women's dependence on each other becomes evident, even palpable, in this forbidding terrain, where belly crawls, narrow passageways, underwater bottlenecks, desperate grapples over inky and jagged chasms, and no option of retreat are the signs of things going well. As much as these sequences bristle, as much as a curt remark or a momentary diversion from the group quivers with horrific possibility, you'll know when the circumstances truly disintegrate. Think compound fractures. Think hallucinations, or possible hallucinations. Think lithe, unimaginable predators. Think no way out.

The Descent invites a few comparisons with this spring's remake of The Hills Have Eyes, especially once Marshall unleashes his armada of scrambling, toothy flesh-eaters, but unlike Hills' rapacious, almost fluorescent glee in gutting its characters, The Descent teases out complex interplays between our enjoyment and our disgust at the women's predicaments, and between their own ingenuity and their apparent doom. The distinction may be subtle or arguable, but I think it makes a difference. I'm hardly cracking a sealed file to tell you that women start dying, but there's much more at stake than a simple body count. The first two deaths are of utterly different orders. In one case, the beasties pounce with Darwinian predictability on the weakest of the human pack. In the other, the furor and dementia of resisting the creatures, but also one of those barely sublimated dislikes among the women, claim their own victim. One death seems quite literal, the other metaphorical; the calculations of guilt are only general in the first case but much more immediate in the second, and the worrisome, jet-black gulf between those alternatives is where the movie makes its wicked, interesting home. Marshall follows this sequence with an even more virtuosic gesture: having splintered his four survivors into three different quadrants of the cave, he endows all of them with the emergency intelligence to deduce the monsters' most important weakness, though each woman presumes that the others haven't made the same discovery. Through maneuvers like this one, crediting the smarts and the physical brio of his characters even as their loyalties and good judgment start to fray, Marshall's largely utilitarian script starts to show some real moxie. Our impressions of these women, which all but blurred at the outset of the caving trip, distill once more into the possibly life-saving assets and dangerous detriments of each individual personality, and yet their plight is collective: just when they think they've lost their comrades in this dark, echoing chamber, they all but bump back into them. Nearby howls of pain or predation are sometimes faraway, and sometimes the reverse.

The Descent breaks a few of its own rules, or at least garbles them, particularly in the area of sound. A salient feature of Marshall's "crawlers" is that after who knows how many years underground, they cannot see their prey, but they can hear a boot scrape or a stalactite drip from hundreds of meters off. You should expect to shush these women repeatedly as the crisis unfolds, even after they should know better than to gab about narrative pivots or to whinge quite so loudly amid the efforts of climbing—though, often enough, their ruckus gets them into much less trouble than it should. More damagingly to the film, the turbulet score by David Julyan (Memento) ratchets up the brass just when we need to know whether the cave itself is quiet or loud. Entire sequences are obscured by the sound design, and as the movie leads to its delectably layered conclusion, it unfortunately gets a bit too frantic to mind all the details.

This is also when the filmic allusions start piling up into their own sort of zombie brigade: scare quotes, if you like, from Don't Look Now, Carrie, Apocalypse Now, The Blair Witch Project, the Gollum sequences in The Lord of the Rings, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original Alien, and in one sudden flash-reveal of a whole brigade of crouching monsters, a direct lift from Aliens. Recognizing these generic avatars isn't devoid of fun, especially since The Descent seems to have been hewed by and for aficionados of the tradition. Occasionally, these citations do impede the movie from taking on its own life, but the karmic showdown of the end, however obviously jerry-rigged, reimprints the movie with its own proud stamp. As it draws to its close, or rather shreiks to a halt, you may well admire how many thematic reads the movie has kept in play: a simple confrontation with implacable violence; a phantom enactment of the women's own neuroses and jealousies; a cautionary parable about bold and nearly virile women intruding rather carelessly into a distinctly labial landscape; the revelation of a lean and bloodthirsty homunculus buried deep in American soil, such that the women's disparate nationalities accrue some significance; or a more ambiguous study of the physically fortifying but morally corrosive enzymes of revenge. Sarah, whose denied but nonetheless obvious fragility in the first hour made her almost invisible—she's the main character, but you can scarcely describe her appearance, or distinguish her from her compatriots—emerges in the final acts as a quick, prehensile, laser-eyed survivalist and a force to be remembered, albeit modeled rather clearly on her grotesque, unholy assailants. None of the actors go very far psychologically, but Shauna Macdonald has clearly put some movement classes and physical training to good use, and her corporal transformation sturdies the whole film through its final chapters. The Descent may not be an epochal movie, and it labors a bit transparently at imitations of its own patron saints, but Marshall has nonetheless shaped a pop movie that would likely reward several visits, and he makes up in conviction, energy, and metaphoric possibility what he so willingly forfeits in originality. By furrowing down into the land and into the id, his film winds up, at least for now, near the top of the year's offerings. B+

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