Eric D. Snider

The Descent

The tragedy of "The Descent" is that it is about a group of good-looking young people who go spelunking and are attacked by otherworldly creatures -- the same plot as last year's crappy "The Cave," in other words, which means some will dismiss it as a copycat.

But the similarities between the films are coincidental, another example of the frequent phenomenon where two nearly identical films are produced at the same time ("Dante's Peak" and "Volcano," "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact," "First Daughter" and "Chasing Liberty," etc.). And as usual, there is one clear victor: Where "The Cave" was a dull wreck, "The Descent" is a truly terrifying horror flick, with suspense, gore and grip-the-armrest thrills doled out in equal measure. Bring a change of pants, because this one's a soiler.

We have six women in their early to mid-20s, most of them British, all gathered in the Appalachian Mountains for a weekend of camping and exploring. They used to meet often for rugged outdoor adventures, but a year ago Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) suffered a personal tragedy that still haunts her. This is their first attempt to regroup since the accident.

Juno (Natalie Mendoza), a brash American, says she's "never been lost" in these parts, and that she knows just the spot to go spelunking: a pristine cave system that's barely been touched by anyone else. And so the nubile young women descend into the virgin chasm, excited and nervous but eager to discover what thrills await them down below. (I tried to write that so it didn't sound dirty, but then I gave up and embraced the dirtiness.)

What awaits them, as it turns out, is bad stuff. Writer/director Neil Marshall builds tension slowly and episodically, first allowing the women to suffer setbacks common to spelunking -- injuries, cave-ins, and so forth -- before introducing them to the supernatural terrors. But Marshall is so good at creating creepiness in the near-darkness that this would be a pretty enthralling suspense film even without the Gollum-like beasts that eventually beset the ladies. Even the "ordinary" sequences of crossing perilous ravines and dealing with a particularly gruesome broken leg are gripping.

Some small attempt is made early on at establishing the characters, but it really boils down to Sarah, Juno, and Sarah's best friend Beth (Alex Reid). Those three points on the triangle shape what comes next, as the attack of the monsters necessitates that strategies be devised and alliances be formed. And let's just say that when you're being pursued by bloodthirsty creatures miles below the Earth's surface is a lousy time to be deciding who you can trust, you know? You're gonna wish you'd had that sorted out sooner.

The film's prologue, in which Sarah's accident occurs, is horrifically satisfying on its own, but I think it does the film a mild disservice. It establishes Sarah as "the main character," which means we think of her differently and fear for her life a little less. In a film with no clear main character, there is far greater suspense over who will live and who will die. (The film's original ending, as seen in the U.K., comes around to that prologue again and thus makes better use of it.)

But that's the movie's only letdown, and maybe it's just as well. If there were any more suspense, the film might be lethal. This is good old-fashioned terror here, bloody and frightening and skin-crawlingly spooky. You may never go spelunking in uncharted Appalachian caves again.

Grade: A-

Rated R, scattered harsh profanity, a lot of violence and gore

1 hr., 39 min.

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This item has 8 comments

  1. pizzocalabro says:

    The Descent is the scariest movie I've ever seen. Hands down. No contest. I spent the entire movie in full fight-or-flight mode, my hands clenched convulsively on the armrests, over my mouth or (occasionally) over my eyes. I made the mistake of watching it last summer with my then-boyfriend, who, it turns out, is more of a wuss than I am when it comes to scary movies. He dumped me a week later, and I'm not completely sure that my dragging him to this film didn't factor into that.

  2. Jaye says:

    Normally I think that your movie reviews are on the mark, but on this one you were way off. Nothing even vaguely frightening happened until an hour into the movie. Even then we when the characters were being attacked by the creatures it was only the same sort of scare you get when someone sneaks up behind you and shouts 'boo'; The fright doesn't last long and you're immune to them doing it a second time.

    Another problem I had with the movie was that I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters beyond a mild and short-lived sympathy for Sarah at the death of her husband and child. After that, they couldn't be killed off fast enough for me so that this travesty of a horror movie could finish.

  3. David Manning says:

    Jaye, I think that counts as a spoiler to this splendid movie. You just revealed what "Sarah's tragedy" was, and that could ruin it for other people who haven't seen the movie yet.

  4. Eric D. Snider says:

    Judge's ruling: not a spoiler. It happens in the first 10 minutes of the film, so while it's more delicate to just call it "Sarah's tragedy," it certainly doesn't ruin anything substantial for the viewer -- especially since someone seeing the movie now probably won't remember Jaye's comment, and will still be appropriately startled when it happens.

  5. Sara Anthony says:

    Loved this movie! I was gripping my husband the entire time. What was the ending though? We were both left not understanding who it was in the car and what happned to Sara?

  6. Jack Hentschell says:

    Sara, watch the unedited version. It's no more gory but it's got the original British ending which is much better and clears everything up.

  7. John Doe says:

    I agree with Jaye, but I don't think Eric "got it wrong" per se. I just didn't care for the movie. It confused me too much I guess and yet it wasn't that deep. I guess I prefer horror movies to be dumbed down since I didn't know what was going on as far as who could be trusted or why.

  8. Mel says:

    It had it`s moments throughout the movie. I do think that it was like someone sneaking up behind you and saying "boo." but, almost all horror movies were like that. this movie was the kind of movie that you decide what was going on. throughout the movie you go through a series of problems: the drama between juno and sarah (did juno and sarah's husband paul have an affair?), trusting eachother at one point (sam and becca turn against juno at one point), and the fact that sarah is just dealing with the tragedy of her husband and daughter. [SPOILERS AHEAD] it leaves you to wonder many things: does sarah live?, was she imagining the creatures the whole time and was just insane?. you really don`t know. the movie doesn`t point out things like that, everything is subtle that you have to pay attention to. it was scary, but not the scariest i have ever seen, but i do agree that it was much better than the cave. overall, great movie that will most likely make you jump atleast once or twice when watching it.

    by the way, i`m talking about the US version of this movie.

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