The second in a series of reviews of films shown at this year’s Fantasia international film festival in Montreal.
A group of women gather together one year after a tragic loss to explore a network of caves and try to buddy up and try to put the past behind them. Once below ground everything that can go wrong does, and the group discovers that they aren’t the only ones roaming the darkness.
Many movie pundits decry the lack of originality in modern cinema. Personally, I’m less interested in how original an idea is than I am in its execution. Most of the films that are considered horror classics have simple storylines which have been told dozens, hundreds, thousands of times before. In every case it’s not a matter of what is shown but how. The Descent is one of those films, and I have very little doubt that it will rank right up there with those stripped-down classic films as time goes on.
Over half of The Descent is a slow burn, with some subtle interpersonal drama, a few well-executed jump scares and a perfect setting for people with claustrophobia. It’s slow, but not quite plodding, and sustains just enough interest to keep your attention. And just when you begin to wonder why everyone’s hyping this movie, everything goes straight to Hell and keeps up the pace right through to the end in a tour de force of carnage and blood.
Neil Marshall’s previous film was the sleeper hit Dog Soldiers, and despite the surface differences there are numerous similarities between that film and The Descent. The protagonists, a group composed entirely of the same gender, must battle their way through an unknown enemy in unfamiliar territory. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect shared between both films, aside from the lack of a romantic subplot, is Marshall’s insistence in making the threat strong instead of turning the characters weak. The women in The Descent aren’t trained warriors as in Dog Soldiers, but they are athletic, smart and definitely capable of swinging a pick axe in a pinch. Like the men in Dog Soldiers, the characters in The Descent use every resource available to them without the need to tout their ingenuity or blather on about it.
Special mention has to be made for the incredible performances of the creatures. Their agility is remarkable. Marshall uses every trick in the book to lend them feral grace and a violent gravity to their every move. I’m not at all sure how much, if any, CGI was used in The Descent, but the simple yet strongly effective make-up could make The Descent the poster boy for the practical effects set.
So far as straight-up nailbiters go, you won’t do any better than The Descent this year. If you get a chance to catch it in its upcoming theatrical run, don’t hesitate.