Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"The Descent," dir. Neil Marshall (Oklahoma Gazette, 8/9/06)

The most effective horror movies shred your nerves not with buckets of blood, but with that hidden threat, the monster just on the edge of your peripheral vision.

Writer/director Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”) fully understands this notion and throughout his white-knuckled thriller “The Descent,” manipulates the darkness with the precision of a surgeon – his ghouls dance just outside of the light, terrifying in their abstraction.

A kinetic, visceral work that can’t sustain the unbearable tension of its premise – six fetching adrenaline junkies exploring an uncharted cavern system get way more than they bargained for – “The Descent” is undone by a limp ending, arbitrary character quirks and fitfully goofy CGI effects.

The gorehounds eager for anything of substance amid the teen-friendly multiplex schlock are pegging this as an heir to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” which cheapens one film and oversells another – I’ll let you figure out which is which. Marshall’s lean, taut set-up seems all the more wasted once the climax unfolds; I’ll tread lightly with regards to spoilers, but let’s just say the finale feels like Marshall chuckling in your face. (It’s probably worth noting that the U.S. release has a slightly different ending than the already-on-DVD U.K. version.)

Spiking the already nerve-jangling narrative with a hefty sprinkling of “gotcha” moments, “The Descent” focuses on a thrill-seeking sextet of women – Sarah (Shauna McDonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) – who’ve recovered from a brutal accident one year prior and are ready to tackle spelunking in the Appalachian mountain range.

That’s about as much as I’m willing to divulge – the less you know going in, the tighter you’ll grip the armrest – but suffice to say, Marshall wastes little time in raising the stakes; the situation escalates from bad to worse to unbelievably hellish, with barely a moment to catch your breath.

Marshall, working with cinematographer Sam McCurdy, makes the dust of the narrow cave passages catch in your throat, just as the giddily sanguine denouement is several minutes of blood-soaked release, alternately terrifying and nauseatingly gooey. There are a few sequences in “The Descent” where I’m genuinely curious as to how the actor, let alone a camera, fit into impossibly narrow spaces.

While the story gives out on Marshall, his cast is up for the challenge, but unfortunately, the six women, especially once the lights go out, are more or less interchangeable. None of the actresses here have an extensive list of prior screen credits, rendering each of them as a blank slate, making it difficult to sympathize when the earth begins to bite back.

“The Descent” isn’t the horror film home run some would have you believe, but it is an effective, eerily compact piece of terror that will fray your nerves and assault your senses. If you’re not afraid of the dark when you enter, you just might be when you leave.

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