The Descent

One of the things that most filmmakers forget about horror movies is that real horror is not necessarily about blood and gore.  This can be a large part of it, but real horror is about the mind.  J-horror works so well because everything is in the mind of the viewer.  The recent The Hills Have Eyes was an attempt at horror; the movie threw ordinary people into an extreme situation and monitored their reactions.  What would they do in order to survive?  How far would they be willing to go?  Note that while the Saw movies are like this, they are nothing more than set pieces.  The Descent is the little scary cousin of last year's The Cave, which had a remarkably similar story.  The main difference is that The Descent hews a bit more towards the realistic, and it is a cast composed mostly of unrecognizables.

Director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) grounds himself by keeping the focus completely on the characters.  One year ago, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, The Debt Collector) lost her husband and daughter in a tragic accident.  Sarah and her friends are avid outdoorswomen, and often take extreme trips across the world.  Juno (Natalie Mendoza, The Great Raid, Code 46) organizes a caving expedition in North Carolina in part to help Sarah move on.  Together with four friends, Sarah and Juno decide to explore an "easy" cave.  What Juno doesn't tell anybody is that she purposely took them to an unknown cave.  This way, it would be more adventurous, and by being the first ones to explore it, they could "claim" it and name it.

The Descent does a good job with its visuals.  Aside from flashlights and a few lamps and flares, most of the scenes are nearly pitch black.  Things are extremely tough to see, and the caves range from cavernous to cramped and claustrophobic.  Most importantly, these six women talk and feel like real people.  They are not the random group thrown together like in most horror films; they are friends that know each other and can act as a group.  The one wildcard is Sarah, who claims to hear and see people.  The other women think she is imagining things, especially given her loss, but everybody watching knows that something more sinister is afoot.

When the creatures finally attack, The Descent shifts a bit into standard horror mode.  The women, who are lost, are picked off one by one, and general madness ensues.  The difference is that Marshall goes about everything in a manner a bit more intelligently than normal.  There is terror in the proceedings, because while the women are smart and extremely capable, they are at the mercy of their environment.  There are the standard jump moments to shock audiences, and a few sequences that will genuinely make viewers squirm.  And while there is violence, Marshall brings it back to the women and the relationships between them.  Everything revolves around Sarah, and the issues she is dealing with.  Marshall forces Sarah to make think fast and make some horrific decisions, and caps it off with some disgusting set pieces.  The Descent works because it's more than horror, the title is both literal and metaphorical.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 39 minutes, Rated R for strong violence/gore, and language.

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