Review: “The Descent”

British director Neil Marshall follows up his disappointing werewolf horror/comedy “Dog Soldiers” with the excellent al- girl spelunking claustrophobic horror flick “The Descent”, arguably the first truly scary horror film since the greats of the 1980’s. The likes of “Saw” had a smarter script, “Wolf Creek” a more believable tone, yet “Descent” works better as a pure ‘horror film’ for the simple reason that it’s far more atmospheric and terrifying’, ‘British director Neil Marshall follows up his disappointing werewolf horror/comedy “Dog Soldiers” with the excellent al- girl spelunking claustrophobic horror flick “The Descent”, arguably the first truly scary horror film since the greats of the 1980’s. The likes of “Saw” had a smarter script, “Wolf Creek” a more believable tone, yet “Descent” works better as a pure ‘horror film’ for the simple reason that it’s far more atmospheric and terrifying. It’s too clumsy in some fundamental ways to be a new classic, and its schizophrenic change of tone in the final act will prove a sticking point, nevertheless where it counts it delivers in spades.

Where “The Descent” works for the most part is its realism and attempts at psychological introspection. The action starts off with the very open and outdoor activity of white water rafting, and a rather shock accident to get the pulse racing. As the film progresses and our sextet of British girls go underground, the environments get more confined, darker and more intense.

Under the ground Marshall shoots only with what seems to be incidental lighting of flares, torches and chemical lights which adds not only a lot of realism to those scenes, but a very effective sense of claustrophobia. Panic attacks, rock slides, hard effort, dead ends, etc. the challenges are quite real and suspense is tense throughout. Simply as a thriller, this is bar none one of the most effective you’ll see.

Then comes the last act, and with no real pre-warning, the monsters arrive. Here is the sticking point and where most will become divided on the film. On the one hand from this point on the film becomes even scarier and deliberately plays up both jump scares and a very high helping of gore.

On the other though what real tension and credible suspense had been built up from the previous hour’s travails through the strata is quickly dropped in favour of cheap thrills. The last major film I can recall that had a similar identity switch in the last act was “Batman Begins” (from distinctive dramatic epic to generic action blockbuster) but that was far more smoother and more digestible due to it being a far better film.

In some ways it almost feels a shame to bring the monsters in, what was starting to feel like a relatively original “Deliverance” meets “Touching the Void” style thriller under the Earth suddenly becomes an “Alien” clone (albeit one of the best clones made of that film). It would be more digestible if there were more realism or characters to care about but there aren’t, and the upping of the gore quotient over the chills renders these later bits more gross than scary.

For all the great atmosphere, the characters are relatively inter-changable and the plot is no further developed than the two line premise. Once it all goes underground, it becomes hard to distinguish who is who amongst these girls, short of the tough Asian chick and our tragedy-suffering heroine. The girls try their best, Mendoza in particular standing out, yet none of them really have much in the way of character to sink their teeth into which makes the eventual “Lord of the Flies”-esque betrayals silly and predictable.

There’s simply not enough meat on the bone here to turn this into a classic along “Alien” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” lines. Yet the concept is excellent, the direction superb, the visuals and atmosphere amongst the best you’ll ever see in a horror film, and the scares very effective. Had Marshall had a stronger script and characters this would’ve been a new classic, or had he made it a serious cave exploring suspense thriller he could’ve created a whole new genre. As is though he has still made a really good horror film that’s easily the best the genre has seen in a long time thanks to its pure, stark and chilling simplicity. Freakish and genuinely disturbing.