Friday, August 04, 2006

The Descent

The Descent is a visceral thrill ride that gets maximum mileage out of its innovative concept. As the latest entry in the recent glut of low budget horror films crowding our cineplexes, it is virtually guaranteed to make a profit regardless of its quality, but thankfully it is well above the norm.

The film follows the adventures of six girlfriends who meet once a year for an extreme sports trip. Their most recent trip ended in personal tragedy for one of the participants, resulting in some discomfort in their relationships as they reconvene for some spelunking in the Appalachians.

As the girls venture further underground, they find themselves in smaller and darker tunnels and eventually experience a cave-in that leaves them trapped and completely shut off from their entry route. Unfortunately, they’re in unexplored caverns and are forced to press on ever deeper in the hopes of finding an alternate way out.

This is an effective setup for the rest of the story that could have easily been followed to its conclusion as they banded together to rescue themselves…but then it wouldn’t have been much of a horror movie. Instead, the film introduces some creepy creatures living underground that are none too happy about their home being invaded by a bunch of girls. This turns the movie into something along the lines of Aliens underground as the girls are mercilessly hunted by blood-thirsty, sightless Gollums while they struggle to escape.

The premise is fairly simple, but also refreshingly original and brilliantly executed, gradually ratcheting up the tension level all the way to the end. Writer/director Neil Marshall has populated the film with tough, resourceful girls rather than resorting to bimbo stereotypes spouting jokey dialogue. While the dialogue isn’t particularly memorable or abundant, it’s a serviceable script that never gets in the way of the impending, percolating dread. The actresses uniformly contribute effective performances, especially Shauna Macdonald as she changes from a fragile innocent to a completely terrifying force of nature.

It's encouraging to see such an original take on what could have been typical genre fodder. The unlikely and not entirely welcome introduction of the creatures diverts the movie from its initial basis in reality, but doesn't derail it from reaching a satisfying conclusion. This detour also allows for some delectable scenery chewing as the hunted girls transform into ferocious hunters. It's a strong calling card for emerging talent Neil Marshall, but most importantly, it's thrilling escapism that should keep viewers away from caverns for the rest of their days.


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