Descent, The (2005)

Starring MyAnna Buring, Craig Conway, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Molly Kayll

Directed by Neil Marshall

In caves, no one can hear you scream. It’s readily discernible – if not from the expansively baroque location, then from the slight, every (wo)man-in-an-alien-landscape plotting – that, aside from the natural-order-run-amok influence of Deliverance, Ridley Scott’s suspense epic is a primary touchstone for ardent horror fan, director Neil Marshall and his new horror picture The Descent. But while no one (above ground at least) can hear you scream in those caves, there’s no danger of anything else going unheard, as the picture’s technical achievements both highlight, and sadly hinder, what is ultimately a flawed though provocative, and in some ways welcome, UK genre effort.

Revisiting the “lone band of fairly ordinary humans thrust into an extraordinary survival scenario against a malevolent foe of unknown origin” premise that proved so audience friendly in Dog Soldiers, Marshall eschews the dogged (really very sorry for that) ribaldry and humour of that lad-friendly hit for a far more rugged, laugh-free scenario featuring a band of female adventurers every bit as defiant, desperate and foul mouthed as their wolfen/military predecessors.

An international cadre of six intrepid, extreme-adventure hungry girlfriends, congregate in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains in their first jaunt after the tragic deaths of one of their number’s husband and young daughter. The intrepid, effusive, and slightly too intense Juno leads the group to an (as they discover) uncharted cluster of caves to claim the hole as their own. Trapped by rocks after an earth tremor, they can only move forward in the hopes of finding an exit. But what they discover instead is a mutated band of creatures that have never seen daylight, but thrive in the dark depths, preying on anyone foolish enough to explore beneath their underground lair.

Grim and humourless, the opening accident sets the pace and atmosphere as both a pleasingly un-self aware genre picture and a step up for director Marshall, after the successful but sophomoric Dog Soldiers. Had the picture ended 3 minutes before it actually did, the same pervasive dread (though only sporadically maintained in sequences throughout the running time) might well have yielded a truly lasting sensation on which to climax such minimalist horror as this. But with an eye to the mainstream, the filmmakers here seemed to have compromised on vital elements of creativity with a view to picking up too many people who might not normally watch horror movies, to the detriment of those who might have maybe watched far too many. Sure to succeed commercially, it’s bound to slightly disappoint more than some of the genre’s legion of increasingly apathetic contemporary long-term fans.

The highlight and the hindrance alluded to in the first paragraph is both exemplified and encapsulated in the picture’s striking sound design. It might just be too good or too sharply honed for the picture it’s meant to be enhancing.

While it’s admittedly pernicious to say that it’s lazy filmmaking, it’s also true that the age-old edge-of-the-frame shock tactic, accompanied by a well timed orchestral stab is a divisive constituent cliche of the genre. The Descent’s trailer (as Nightwatch’s trailer does) happens to make fantastic use of this very gimmick. Yes, it’s cheap here too but for Hick’s sake it works for that instant. And we laugh and make a note to see the picture made by the guy who knows how to get a nervous laugh, however begrudgingly, out of us. To then use it overly liberally throughout the film as the sole means to scare the audience, though, becomes taxing and sadly trying.

In Jaws, Spielberg made exquisite use of the audience’s propensity for anticipating these shock tactics. Williams’ unassuming score would signify suspense and you’d get hit with a shock before the threat of one had reared its head. The audience continued to expect such a shock every time the music built so ominously. But then, sometimes, nothing would happen. The audience would become complacent. And in the silence of that contemplation the film would hit you with a screeching jolt out of nowhere but the deep Atlantic. In Halloween John Carpenter employed a similar trick, utilising not just sound but Panavision space as well. This was thirty years ago.

The Descent seeks to emulate these lessons without fully realising what can be done with them and that perhaps audiences have become more sophisticated. With that in mind, it’s hard to argue that it succeeds on anything more than the basest of levels – though it’s admittedly effective because of (or despite) it.

For each aural assault in The Descent that seeks to put the audience through the collective wringer, there is a curious precision to the moment’s set up. Almost without exception (the obvious one being Marshall’s absolutely superb reveal of the first creature’s attack), each scare is telegraphed to high heaven, with a few moments of absolute silence added to a creation of screen space above/below/to the side of each character it involves. It’s certainly no less effective because of it and affront (a strong term but it does become galling) to the viewer is totally subjective, dependent most probably on one’s familiarity with the tropes of the genre. The casual or non-fan will be caught out most times. But for those in the know, the fun is diminished each time and because of that, though the picture clips along at a pace, it’s ultimately suspenseless.

Like Ridley Scott’s seminal space chamber operatics, The Descent seeks to unleash the brutal survivalist in the character(s), a desperate mindset that sees them become as inhuman as the beast stalking them in order to save themselves. But there’s no framework here. There’s no outer shell of the story, no conspiracy to lay claim to a new species or a futuristic corporation’s sacrifice of personnel in the face of xenomorphic greed. The girls’ laying claim to a new set of caves hardly suffices. Then there’s the hinted plot point from the opening scene, which fails to materialise into anything of substance. The effect is that it begins to feel like a syndicated Situation Horror, contextless but for a few valuable character sketches, sketches that could have been enhanced and built upon so that an audience might truly care about and beyond the various gruesome demises that befall these girls.

Shocks, strikingly timed gore gags and a certain bleak awe the picture has in spades and not a little of this is down to Marshall’s astute choice of composer (the Batman-less David Julyan). Portent, dissonance, aching distress and even the aforementioned cheap orchestral stabs are as polished as anything else in “The Decent”, contributing immeasurably to the partial success of the film. But there is sadly little in the way of true suspense, true scares, or true terror, leaving the picture to rely heavily on limp auditory hallucinations as a byword for slight mental instability and for illogical situations as excuses for sickly slick effects that make little narrative sense.

The foibles and dynamics that eventually split the group are spare but deft, making for caricatures, albeit pleasingly rounded ones. This is in spite of the promise of a shattering of that dynamic never actually emerging. All this beleaguered goodwill toward a film of higher ambition is eventually compromised in one sequence in particular where one of the girls find herself submerged in an underground lake of blood. It becomes a scene which underlines the pure gag factor and uneasy coherence of the third act. We’re willing to believe (as we discover early on) that the creatures may have pulled animals down from the surface to survive. Surely though, not enough to create an entire lake of blood. Moreover, if they had managed to do just that, the amount of time it would take to produce that blood would surely have meant it would have congealed at least partially? It’s a small nit pick, but one that shatters the verisimilitude Marshall’s scenario dictates his picture should keep to maintain the terror. It’s what his promise for the film was built on.

Like the work of Paul W.S. Anderson (though Marshall, just two films into his career, is demonstrably a better, more humble and certainly more appreciable filmmaker than Anderson and all of his 6 chances) The Descent is built most on promise. The promise of the politics of fear, the promise of the gnawing terror of the dark, the promise of unrelenting terror and lashings of gruesome gore. Certainly it’s slick with the red stuff with the creature F/X being notable and (when not marred by unfortunately crass CGI enhancements) effectively nasty. But it’s no more bloody in the end than Anchor Bay’s Shallow Ground or even Dog Soldiers. It delivers, but not beyond any film of a similar rating. The film it seems, even on this base score is a triumph of marketing more than it is of genre filmmaking (though it’s by no means a poor film).

Then there’s that promise of something unrelenting.

This last point wouldn’t jar so much were Marshall’s picture grounded less in the semi-gritty reality of John Boorman’s backwater picture, particularly. The girls are all very human (feisty or annoying depending on your personal taste). The combat with the creatures is frenetic and joltingly shot and edited, but disturbing less for what they are and for the momentum they build in the picture than for what they sound like. When the crunchingly dependent Foley work once again settles back to the thrum of the cave’s recesses and the dripping of sedimentary water, the effect of the fleetingly momentous build up is ripped away from the audience who are left to sit back and wait for the next cheap scare.

In this respect, the director’s PR-blurbed promise of internal pressure within the group degenerating (descending? I assume that was the conceit) into madness is also for nought, an indication perhaps that the copious screenplay drafts derived from Marshall’s high concept idea might have focussed instead on extrapolating more than a series of fairly generic set pieces from the ripe cave bound situation. There turns out to be one incident of minor and vaguely understandable treachery (not with standing a bit of posturing arrogance involving a lost guidebook) that yields about five minutes of rather forced about-face madness from one character. Not “Anakin’s turn” ridiculous, sure. Not Boogeyman ludicrous either. Possibly Dawn Of The Dead 04 blunt and certainly stretching the bounds of credulity toward pure “necessary plot point” territory. To be honest, it’s a mere footnote to what was promised as hallucinatory guignol.

Then three minutes before the ending (a one-two pummel of yet another shock cut and a limp, final reveal rendered all but meaningless because it has been in no way earned, emotionally) it seems Marshall’s commercially led instincts have congealed into a nicely sadistic package, moments of which you’ll want to revisit and relive, leading to a stark and distressing image of the final girl (before it goes tits-up in the last scene). It’ll irritate some, please others, enrage a few and delight/terrify plenty. It’s up for debate into which subset readers of Dread Central will fall.

But what is clear is that should any future screenplays be lucky enough to fall into anyone other than the director’s hands during rewrites, Marshall the director will almost certainly deliver on (if nothing else, and there is much to like here) the confidence and promise of his debut and this follow-up. When that happens, the UK might finally have a genuine genre player on their side, one who isn’t averse to unhappy endings, one who won’t rewrite the franchise and one who won’t forget that the fan in him needs to keep his promises.

3 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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