the descent (2005)

I like horror movies. I like the way they're shot, I like the atmosphere they create, I like their unflinching persistence on topics that most films routinely avoid. I also love that they're the only genre of films that goes out of their way not to please the audience. They truly are unique in the world of cinema. In a film, as in any art form, it is not what happens, it's how it happens. It is not the details of what a film is about that measure its success, it's how well the film is executed that actually matters. In this sense, horror films are cinema of the purest kind. They are gauged on the experience, on how "scary" they are; as long as they scare us, the rest is icing on the cake. If a horror film would like to make sense, good then, go for it. But at the end of the day what's really going to matter is wether or not I was scared while watching it. And that's it. Other genre films get bogged down with details: names, places, secret codes and begin to feel more like crossword puzzles than motion picture experiences. Good horror, however, remains free. The key word there was "Good". In the past few years there has been a distinct horror revival, horror movies are coming out left and right, but their quality is up for debate. In the last few years I've seen plenty of horror, but after some disappointments I've learned the extremely important lesson: horror, pure as it may be, is the genre that consistently disappoints more than any other. But sometimes, just every so often, a film comes along that makes all the garbage you have to sift through worth it. The film I've just seen, The Descent, is one of those films. 

However, the biggest injustice that's been done here is that, from the ads, you'd never know it. This is the best horror film to come out in years, and yet the trailers make it look like some lame sequel to last summer's crapfest The Cave. Come on LionsGate, you gave the cinematic disgrace known as Saw some great marketing, can't you do the same for a movie that's actually good? I mean this film is even a proven success, it should have been a no-brainer. It was released last summer in its native UK to great success and has finally made its way to the states and deserves the same kind of reception, altered ending or not. What makes the awesomeness of The Descent even more awesome is that it is only the second feature film made by director Neil Marshall. For a director of his relative inexperience to be creating an atmosphere like the one on display here is absolutely astounding. This guy is going to be a master in the not too distant future. It becomes even more impressive because his debut feature, Dog Soldiers, was a complete disaster. For some odd reason, it's thought of as a pretty decent film by critics, I thought it was one of the most awful things I'd ever seen put to film. Eh, to each his own I guess. That film lacked any and all forms of directorial panache, existing almost completely in ridiculously unengaging close-ups, with a sophomoric understanding of general film pacing. The script was a mess, and at times I honestly wondered if it had been made exclusively for the sci-fi channel. So you can imagine my surprise when his very next film turns out this good. Marshall has done a very welcome 180 and delivered us a film that not only fixes all of the flaws I just mentioned from last time around, but actually exceeds my expectations to top it all off. The Descent gives us the straightforward story of six friends who decide to get together on a weekend trip to re-connect. Their activity of choice? Cave diving. Make sense? Of course not. Do I care? HA! No .... no I don't. So things get underway with nary a hint of the well-crafted scares to come. In fact, the beginning of the movie is surprisingly cookie-cutter, with the standard scene of all six girls getting reacquainted, laughing at eachother's pajamas, painting their nails and a whole slew of trite activities you'd expect from the beginning of a horror movie. Everyone involved with the film has saved their creative energy for the meat of the story, and what a good choice it was. Marshall even teases us with one of the most predictable "jump scare"s ever, lulling us into a false sense that we're one step ahead of him. We won't be for long. From that point on the girls enter the cave and the suspense begins. The film transforms right before our very eyes and our every nerve is immediately aware of it. The rest of the film makes wonderful use of the horror genre's ace-in-the-hole: suspense. Suspense is the greatest thing a horror film can do. It culminates in that moment every horror film should strive for, the moment where every muscle in your body tenses up, your toes curl, the hairs on your neck stand on end; the longer a horror film can keep me in this state, the more impressed with it I am. Well, how does an hour sound? Yeah. The worst thing a horror film can do is to give us nothing but concentrated "jump" scares. However, for most of The Descent, the base-line of what the audience is feeling is such a high degree of constant suspense, literally the only way to break the tension is to scare you. That's when you know a horror film is doing its job. 

You also know it's doing its job when it has sense enough to not make any sense. Allow me to elaborate. What The Descent does so right, and other films like The Ring and Dark Water did so wrong, is the amount of information we're given. The Ring involved an elaborate backstory detailing the who, where, what, why, when of ... an evil possessed videotape that kills people. Uh ... right. Horror is obviously not the genre to rationalize, it's the genre to feel. The Descent makes not one attempt to ground itself in reality or offer any explanation of anything. If you need a massive explanation, go see The Grudge. If you want your nerves shot with kickass madness, watch The Descent. This film also happened to utilize one of my favorite horror tricks: color. It's a tool that not many modern horror flicks use. And I'm not talking about "look! the main character is wearing a red shirt because that's the color of blood! omg! Foreshadowing!" kind of garbage. I'm talking about picking one color and bathing the entire scene in nothing but that solid color. Marshall pulls this a number of times when the characters light up the cave using various red flares, massive green glow-sticks (and, later on of course, blood) , and it looks great. Argento would be proud. The script for the film provides some of its best and worst elements. Conceptually, it's great stuff, but when you get down to the mechanics of stuff like dialogue, it definitely disappoints. Actually, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Marshall just let his actresses ad-lib once they got into the cave. However, the dialogue in the first half hour is atrocious. The best part about the script, and the part that many, many, many, many (many) recent films could learn from is that it knows when to leave. The film introduces the suspense, keeps you in constant tension for about an hour, and then just ends on a high-note. That's it. The script and direction leave no room for wrap-up, catch-your-breath garbage. It just beats the crap out of us and drops us. It was awesome. Speaking of the direction, I have to give it yet another mention. Marshall is just awesome with this film. The thrills keep coming a mile a minute. In one of his best moves, he fulfills one of my horror film fears, an act that most films stop just short of, but Marshall takes all the way. For that, he gets alot of credit. He takes this film all the way. One reviewer wrote of him that he is clearly not the horror director we so often get, one who is using this as a stepping stone into more "real" films. No. Marshall is clearly fulfilling his aspirations now. He wants to direct horror. The cinematography is pretty good, especially for the scenes bathed in color I mentioned above. The greens and reds in this film are incredibly vibrant, and they look great. The acting is good, nothing great, but it's a very minor point. As the character descend deeper into the ground, so too do they descend into the darkness within themselves, and the actresses portray this wonderfully. 

This film is a thrill ride, and a crazy one at that. When films are referred to as being a tour-de-force, this is what they're talking about. It may not save horror as we know it, but it's a step in the right direction, and a great sign of things to come from an impressive new director. His next film, Doomsday, is an apocalyptic something-or-other that you can bet I'll be there for. It's an intense film with some extremely cool visuals and an atmosphere to rattle your nerves. I've kicked around the idea of rating it a bunch of different ways, but in the end here I'm going to have to award it something pretty great. For now, my faith in horror is restored, and that was no small task. So, here's to you Neil Marshall , this was the most memorable theater experience so far this year.