THE DESCENT (2005)
After a tragedy one year before, six female friends gather in the Appalachian Mountains to explore a cave system together. Soon after they enter the caves, a collapse blocks the path behind them and they are forced to venture forward, hoping to find another way out. As tension and fatigue begins to put a strain on the group, they discover to their horror that they are not alone in the dark. That is all the synopsis you're going to get, and all that you need.
This was bar none the best horror movie to hit the United States in 2006, even with its truncated ending (more on this later). Anyone who will try to argue this point simply hasn't seen this movie. It is that scary. So scary in fact, that your intrepid writer, who usually goes out of his way to keep the writing in third person and remain somewhat objective, is going to slip into full-on first person narrative for a moment.
No movie has done to me what THE DESCENT did since I watched the Japanese film PULSE. That was in 2001. As I watched this movie, alone at night on my couch, I could not help but move from one uncomfortable position to the next as the tension ratcheted up and the carnage spilled out on the screen. When the screen went black, my heart rate was bumping, my fingers were shaking and gosh-darn-it if I didn't pause just a moment before going into a dark room to turn on the lights.
This is Neil Marshall's second full-length outing as director. His first film, DOG SOLDIERS, was a unique take on werewolves and pitted them against a small band of military soldiers in the woods of Scotland. He returns again to the similar themes in his writing, only this time around six females discover what goes bump in the shadows and learn what goes bump within themselves. The film has a feminist agenda, without being preachy at all, and allows these women to let loose an inner strength that is too often in this world suppressed.
Throughout the entire film there is some very active camera and sound work going into creating a very specific mood and subconscious feeling within the viewer. In the beginning of the film, great pains are taken to use as many full and wide angle shots as possible, to give an open and airy feeling. But once inside the cave systems, the camera closes in on the actors and thus closes in on the viewer which brings about an uneasy and claustrophobic sense.
There are many shots where most of the screen is "dead" space, as the characters climb through the tiny tunnels, as if the blackness were swallowing them up. Speaking of blackness, lighting takes an interesting and sinister turn once they go underground. The second part of the film is lit purely from source light, i.e. torches, flares, glow sticks and a camera's infra-red lens, which washes entire scenes in strange hues of red and green, and can be quite disorienting at times.
While watching this film, the average horror fan will be able to easily spot several references and nods to past horror films, which in include ALIEN, THE THING, CARRIE and even the not so horrific GOONIES. Marshall does not try to hide the fact that his film includes these references. It is almost as if to say: remember the terror you felt when watching those other movies? Well I'm going to try and give you that same visceral reaction.
And now onto the "two" endings. This film was originally released in Great Britain, and the original end of the film had a much more bleak and somewhat open end. When Lion's Gate got the rights to the film, they literally stopped the movie halfway through the end. The truncated ending created a more happy ending for a movie-going American audience that would not be able to accept the true implied fate of what happened. Sadly this downbeat ending, which implied that no one made it out alive and was seen in full on the US DVD release, was overridden with the release of THE DESCENT: PART 2.