I gather, for many, “The Descent” will draw comparisons to the forgettable flop “The Cave”. But if you liked “The Cave”–and I doubt many of you did–you’ll love this. For a gorier, more menacing alternative, “The Descent” is your choice. Director Neil Marshall who also directed the exciting horror actioner “Dog Soldiers”, hits the mark yet again with this claustrophobic frightening monster flick from the UK. And Marshall takes the same formula from the former, and implants it here: Take opposite characters, some with sordid pasts, mix with tension, a horrifying monster, human paranoia, and you have a basic powder keg.
Marshall’s excellent direction uses natural lighting of stark colors within the caves, and relies on sound more than actual eye candy to make the audience jump out of our seats, and it works well. The sudden scares worked here, and many of the scenes literally had me jumping from my seat. After Sarah has a freak accident on the road with her family, a year later she’s taken on an expedition in to a cave with her friends exploring and spelunking, but when their only exit collapses, they have to find their way out. But the real problem begins when they realize something is trailing them with savage intent.
Using basically one setting for the journey of these women, a creatively impotent crew could have turned this in to a stale waste of time, but Marshall uses his settings to his advantage relying on the small light to increase the dread and suspense. It also helps that there are often very strong performances from the entire cast, Shauna Macdonald in particular who displays true skill as the lead heroine forced to resort to brute tactics toward her own survival. Marshall spends a portion of the first half of the film on character emphases between that works well, and even though the actual action begins within the fifty minute mark, the human drama is surprisingly engrossing before that.
One caveat that keeps this bogged down is the often sloppy editing that makes the sequences in the cave hard to follow. Often times, I could never tell what was happening in spite of the detail being placed in the scenes before us, and Marshall pulls a trick on the audience along the lines of Aja’s “Haute Tension” with a climax that felt more like a cop out than an actual ending to the story. Though, when actually confronted with the hidden menace, “The Descent” turns in to a frantic nihilistic horror entry that pays off with successful results, and never lets up on us.
Marshall is two for two now with a terrifying horror opus that relies on human drama to draw in the fear and then packs a punch with often kinetic chaos that jumps off the screen. With beautiful direction, a plausible plot, effective but downplayed creature effects, and top notch acting, “The Descent” takes a tired concept and actually adds a sense of distinction.