Synopsis (serious spoiler alert!): On an annual extreme outdoor adventure, six women meet in a remote part of the Appalachians to explore a cave hidden deep in the woods. Far below the surface of the earth, disaster strikes when a rock fall blocks their exit and there’s no way out. The women push on, praying for another exit, but there is something else lurking under the earth. The friends are now prey, forced to unleash their most primal instincts in an all-out war against an unspeakable horror – one that attacks without warning, again and again and again.
The Descent 8.5
Let me start by warning you that this entry may seem a little insubstantial. Thing is, as with ‘Pontypool’, my intention is to avoid any spoilers – and since this film is built on a series of dramatic moments to build its suspense, there’s not much I can discuss in detail. Of course, if you’ve already read the stupid-@$$ synopsis above (which was taken from the back of the DVD), a lot is already ruined. Whoever wrote that blurb should be fired. And maybe also beaten over the head for good measure – with a rubber chicken, to prevent permanent damage and lawsuits!
‘The Descent’ is, without a doubt, one of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen in years. It may even be the most suspenseful one since ‘Hard Candy’, two years ago. Not only is it suspenseful, but it is nearly pitch-perfect: it’s simply well-made on all levels. Frankly, the less you know about the film, the better. I think that it was a special experience because I knew very little and it was so well-executed on all counts (I was always waiting for the darned thing to fail me and it never did). And, even though I saw some things coming, the way they did it surprised me each time.
It’s everything that ‘Dog Solders’ (Marshall’s previous film) wanted to be. While I’ve long been a fan of the film, an amazing blend of ‘The Predator’ and some seriously spectacular werewolves, I find that ‘The Descent’ is superior – the core elements (human survival story, claustrophobic quality, outdoorsy settings) are similar, but the execution is better. Scene after scene, I kept being impressed with how Marshall has managed to make it work. His timing was absolutely perfect, even if the editing could sometimes be frenetic.
He helped things by destabilizing us from the onset. The opening sequence leaves the audience with the understanding that nothing is sacred, that anything could happen – and likely will. This knowledge alone added to the tension like nothing else would. What’s great is that it starts of as a suspense film and then it turns into full-bore cinematic terror, built on the build up of its first half.
To give you an idea of what to expect, imagine a nail-biting and unrelenting ‘Lord of the Flies’ with women instead of boys! And, instead of an island, a series of underground caves (‘The Descent’ is not for viewers who are claustrophobic, let me tell you!).
The film features an excellent cast and a few exceptionally well-defined characters (although others were somewhat interchangeable). I loved that they were all women and that they were all athletic: it helped us buy into their extremely challenging underground journey as well as the final parts of the film – because, as sporty people, they were more capable of doing everything that was asked of them. And just the fact that it was a half-dozen solid female leads in a film of this genre was amazing (how often do you get that?).
Speaking of leads, the emotional journey that our main protagonist goes through is essentially the equivalent of primal therapy. With everything that she goes through, she makes a transition from seemingly normal to damaged being to imposed resiliency and, ultimately, triumph (or is it? the ending is slightly ambiguous about the state of her mind – especially in the uncut version, which restores the original ending’s last 90 seconds ).
‘The Descent’ was so riveting that, in all seriousness, I was left mouth agape a few times – something which never happens to me. I even reacted audibly on a few other counts. For me, this was all-involving, delicious fun. I very much appreciated that it never lowered itself to the depths of our most recent crop of scary films; although it could be visceral (especially towards the end ), it went for the psychological first and foremost, creating an inescapable sense of foreboding.
It certainly did its job in tapping into one’s fear of the dark: after the first 15 mins, the story took place in such low-lighted conditions that we couldn’t see half of the time. But this was perfect because it forced us to see things in the characters’ eyes – as that’s exactly how it was for them. This also helped in the later scenes, because we couldn’t exactly see who was doing what; it injected uncertainty and instability to great effect.
The aural quality was also particularly pleasing. The surround activity was exceptional, assisting the film through and through: scratchy noises from the sides and corners of the room gave a creepy hint of what was to come, various sounds moved around to create the environment the women were in, you could hear the echo fill the room and water trickling about, …etc. The key difference between this and ‘Pontypol’ is that I think the film would still have left me uneasy without the soundscapes. Still, it enhanced the experience tremendously, and I highly suggest waiting until the right conditions to watch this.
Does ‘The Descent’ have repeat viewing value? As far as I’m concerned, it sure does. In fact, this would look and sound SO bloody amazing on Blu-ray (and reviews for it support that assessment!) that I think I will upgrade. I usually tend to only do this with a few essentials because DVD quality is fine with me. But this is one of those movies that deserves it: it’s not only a very good hair-raiser, but it has the technical muscle to back it up.
This is, without a doubt, the standout film of my October “spookfest” so far, and it’s absolutely making my top 5 for the year. Frankly, I highly doubt that it will be bested, but the month is hardly over…