Screw all those damn Japanese horror remakes. Laugh at the lame schlock films like "Saw" and "Hostel." If you want a blood-splattered, fright-inducing experience, then "The Descent" is the movie for you. Easily the best horror movie of the year, "The Descent" makes monster movies scary again.
A British film, "The Descent" follows six 20-something women to the Appalachian mountains in the U.S. to go cave exploring. Trouble is brewing, however, as tensions rise between the group's tough leader, Juno, and Sarah, a woman who recently lost her husband and child to a car wreck and suspects Juno of having an affair with her now decomposing man (while he was still alive). More importantly, Juno, in some kind of adrenaline-fueled, idiotic urge, has taken her friends into a network of caves that no one knows about - no one knows where they are, and no one knows where the caves lead. When a collapse forces them to continue on, the women are pushed to their breaking point... but they have no idea what's in store for them.
What would you do if you were cave exploring and you pointed your flashlight into a corner and saw Gollum standing there? The first full glimpse of the monsters we see is a white, humanoid body sipping water from a pool, hunched over like Gollum. What makes this creepy is that Gollum is free to exist in "The Lord of the Rings," but this is "real life," and I would not want to encounter any creature that even remotely resembles him - not to mention that up close, the monsters in this movie are a thousand times scarier than most other monster movies combined.
Of course, Sarah, the woman who first sees this creature, thinks that the monster is another cave explorer, when clearly it is not. I would have been running as fast as I could away from there, and, admittedly, probably would leave my friends in the dust. Maybe these women weren't quite aware that they were soon going to be eaten by viscous creatures from the darkness, but they should have figured it out sooner than they did.
While never slow, "The Descent" really doesn't get super intense until almost an hour in. For the first two acts, director Neil Marshall carefully takes advantage of the claustrophobia of being in a cave, of the tensions of these high-wire friends, of the psychological damage to Sarah due to the loss of her loved ones, and the audience's knowledge that at any time, things are going to go from bad to Hell. Marshall's film is suspenseful from beginning to end, but the first hour plots along in a way that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, even though there has been no indication that any monsters are going to show up. But you know, and that is enough.
Marshall does throw in a few cheap scares which I think could have been avoided. The very last shot in the movie, as you might suspect, involves a scary moment, but it really doesn't fit in at all with the rest of the movie. Was it added just to appeal to horror fans who expect one last jump?
Then again, it really doesn't matter. Because despite a couple of jumps that really weren't needed, the film is positively creepy no matter what is happening. And when the monsters attack, Marshall takes things to the next level and doesn't let up until it's all over (well, obviously). What's most impressive about "The Descent" is that few films nowadays can pull off a good monster. Look at "Jeepers Creepers," for instance. That movie was scary up until it was revealed that the bad guy was actually a monster. Then it just became cheesy. It's very hard to buy into monster movies today, as people generally find psychopathic killers more frightening because they are more real. Creature design is another problem - most movie monsters look fake to some degree or another, or rely on computer graphics or something of the sort.
The monsters in "The Descent" are scary, and realistic. The movie implies that perhaps at some point these creatures were human, and they've slowly evolved over time into some kind of cave dwelling creatures that move quickly, can climb on ceilings, navigate by sonar and love to eat animal flesh. The movie never goes into much detail as to what Marshall was intending, but that's probably a good thing - most movies that try to explain where the monsters came from often end up wasting time with some implausible explanation that just sounds cheesy. What I also liked about these monsters is that they aren't invincible, and in fact are relatively weak, aside from the fact that they appear to have no fear, and use their teeth to bite huge chunks out of human flesh - while the flesh is still attached to the human. The women are able to fight back and kill the creatures just like they could with humans, only there is much more blood and gore.
"The Descent" does struggle in a few spots, mainly early on. The acting is questionable at times, but the bigger problem may be the script, which seems to rush character development along at a pace that is hard to handle. A few things the women say and do are not all that believable, and their interactions early on are difficult to relate to at times. Still, once they're deep inside the caves, everything seems to settle down - or at least you are so distracted by trying not to piss your own pants that you don't notice.
Marshall also goes a little camera crazy once the attack starts, which effectively captures the sense of overall chaos and confusion but comes at the expense of the audience being able to see what is going on. There are a few sequences where the camera moves so fast that we have no idea what exactly is happening, or to who. All the women look about the same, and in the darkness with the camera shaking and moving in close, it is hard to tell who is being killed, who is tripping over a rock, and so on and so forth.
Despite a few minor flaws that are common to any horror movie, "The Descent" is an edgy, gory and absolutely frightening monster movie. This one is highly recommended for any horror fan.
DVD Review (B+)
The Descent, quite possibly the year's best horror movie, is now out on DVD and thankfully in its original European "unrated" form. I didn't notice too many differences throughout the course of the movie, except for the ending, which offers up only thirty seconds more, but what a thirty seconds! In my original review, which was based on the American version, I complained about the ending being a little cheap - but the ending here is so much better, at least in certain ways. I am not utterly upset that Lionsgate decided to change the ending in the theatrical release - there was just no reason for it.
The rest of the DVD is pretty decent, though it doesn't offer anything of exceptional value. There are two different audio commentaries (one with the director and crew, one with the director and cast), a behind-the-scenes feature, some deleted scenes that were removed for obvious reasons, and a few more things ranging from an interview with the director to a bunch of standard filler items such as a stills gallery (honestly, what's the point?), biographies and so on and so forth. The one true highlight of the DVD (other than the original ending) is the outtakes, which are funny to say the least. You don't see outtakes for horror movies too often, and this feature is priceless, if not only for the dancing monster bit.
It doesn't matter what's on the DVD. If you haven't seen The Descent, and you probably haven't based on the amount of money the movie made in American theaters, you need to buy and watch this flick now!
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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