Thursday, August 09, 2007

Movie Review - The Descent (2005)

I’d heard good things about this movie from various sources, and had been meaning to see it for a while. So – a month or so ago, I finally got around to renting it.

All I can say is…wow!

This is a movie about a group of extremely athletic female friends who, once a year, get together to do an adventure vacation. The movie starts with them just finishing a rafting trip in Europe. As they leave, the protagonist Sarah (played by Shauna McDonald) gets into a car with her husband and daughter and, as they are driving up a winding mountain road have an accident with a truck. Sarah’s husband and young daughter are killed.

Fast forward to one year later and the girls have gotten together again. This time, one of the other characters, a woman named Juno (played by Natalie Mendoza), has arranged for the girls to go caving in North Carolina. Sarah is regretting coming, as she is still grieving, but has come because Juno has insisted. There is some underlying tension between Sarah and Juno (the reason why being revealed later), but it is largely because they were once so close. Compounding this, Sarah doesn’t so much care for these trips anymore, in her grief having realized that there are more important things. Juno senses this ambivalence and doesn’t quite understand it as she is still very much about adventuring.

So Sarah, Juno, and a group of 6 other girls head into a cave in the backwoods of North Carolina. Tension mounts as a cave-in seals the exit and the girls are forced to go deeper and deeper into the caverns in an attempt to find a way out. After the cave-in, it’s also revealed that Juno, in her continual strive to push things to the extreme, has taken them into an unexplored, unmapped cave. Essentially, they don’t know if there’s an exit – they only know that they are trapped. As if being trapped isn’t enough, they learn that they are definitely not alone in the cave.

They quickly discover that the caverns are inhabited by murderous, blind, mutated, human-like creatures with a taste for X-Games-type hotties.

This was a damn good movie. One of the best horror movies I’ve seen in a while that is pure horror. What works so well is the sense of claustrophobia that Director Neil Marshall maintains throughout the movie. Other movies have tried, but failed miserably, to give the sense of being trapped underground. The Cave, with Cole Hauser, comes to mind. Where The Cave failed, and The Descent excels – is in the tight, coffin-like feel of the passages coupled with the effective use of darkness. Where The Cave relies on beautiful, preternaturally lit grottoes and cavernous underground lakes… The Descent revels in constricting, breathtaking, what-the-fuck-is-that-outside-of-the-flashlight’s-range terror.

For instance, right before the cave-in, one of the characters get stuck in a crevasse and the terror she feels at being trapped under miles of rock is palpable. As a viewer, it is actually squirm inducing. I love when a movie can actually make me empathetically feel the horror of one of the characters. It was reminiscent, but somehow worse, then the buried alive scene from Kill Bill Vol. II.

And Neil Marshall is a great director. He’s responsible for one of my all time favorite werewolf movies, Dog Soldiers. There, as well as here, he manages to get under the viewers skin and dig out chunks of viscera with his unique vision.

The creatures themselves are scary and are good for some well placed and (gratefully) not cheap and gratuitous jump startles. The true hallmark of a good horror movie, and one of the things that Doctor Zombie loves to the depths of his cold, undead heart, is when a movie surprises me and gets my ticker going. A good jump startle should not be telegraphed. As a lover of all things horror, I’ve become inured to many horror movies. If you’ve seen enough of them, you can mentally say to yourself, “Fuck. Here comes the part where the cat jumps out of the closet. Sigh.”

God how I hate that.

This movie, however, doesn’t telegraph the terror and it’s this sort of true sinister filmmaking that so wooed me. There’s a scene where one of the women is looking through a night vision camcorder and we get our first introduction to the CHUDS. This scene, besides being filmed beautifully, actually made the Doctor startle and squeak. That was, of course, quickly followed by a giggle as I was so tickled by being scared. I’ve become numb to many horror flicks and being startled happens so seldom nowadays that it makes me giddy like a schoolgirl when it does happen.

What’s more, the ending is – quite possibly – one of the most beautifully haunting and horrifically memorable endings of a horror movie I’ve seen in quite some time.

At its heart, this movie is about a group of women trying to survive. I’d heard beforehand that it was a cool statement on “Girl Power” and this quite honestly sort of steered me away from it. I thought that it was going to be another unrealistic action flick where the characters rig up air tanks to make flamethrowers and use piton guns to fight off the evil monsters in some heroic, and cringe-worthy Uwe Boll showdown. This movie is – fortunately – so much more than that. In fact, it isn’t like that at all. It is a claustrophobic, deliciously chilling horror movie about a group of girls in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with no fucking way out. On top of that, each character is developed and Neil Marshall gives you a reason to care about their being eaten alive by pasty, inhuman, grotesque, cannibalistic monsters.

Final word? This movie is on the Doctor’s must own list and is highly recommended if you’re looking for a well crafted, emotional, smart horror film. Turn off the lights, cuddle up on the couch, and enjoy! It’s well worth the rental!

Doctor Zombie’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Chomped Brains!!!

1 comment:

Phronk said...

I totally agree with you on this. What was awesome was that it was an effective horror movie even before the monsters showed up. And when they, that first night vision scene was pure horror genius. I don't even know why, but it's must be hard to pull off a scare like that, despite hundreds of horror movies trying to. One of the best movies I've seen in a while.