I saw The Descent on Saturday night with mi esposa. I have to admit I was swayed by the blurb they ran in the television commercials for the film that announced that The Descent was the best horror movie "since Alien". Quite a pedigree. Separates it from the usual crap horror fare designed for teens who don't know any better. Of course that quote was from a film geek website, JoBlo.com, but since I'm essentially a film geek myself, I figured they couldn't be THAT far off. And though I've decided that JoBlo's opinion is mostly hyperbole, Descent is no Alien, the movie's actually pretty good.
Written and directed by Neil Marshall, the movie's about six outdoorsy women (mainly British gals) who, for this year's adventure, descend into a cave located somewhere in the Appalacian mountains. The film's heroine, Sarah (played by Shauna MacDonald), is recovering emotionally from a car wreck back in England that claimed the lives of her husband and young daughter. The other developed character in the group of six cavers, an ultra-fit, adrenaline-junkie bitch named Juno, organized the excursion in an effort to help Sarah move past the tragedy, although, as we later discover, Juno has alterior motives. The girls aren't down in Centenaryland long before bad things start to happen.
I can't really talk about what happens down there without giving away some of the film's surprises, so I'll just say that The Descent does suspense and scares with skill and imagination. Though I was frustrated with the film in terms of consistent realism. Director Marshall depicts some aspects of caving with a kind of cinema verite realism, showing how tight some of the passages are, how arduous and tedious and dangerous the work of navigating underground can be, and then other elements of caving are shown in cartoonish broad strokes that weaken the film more than I think Marshall realized. For instance, a caver with naught but a flashlight affixed to their helmet (or even just an oversized glowstick) cannot run in a cave, especially if they've never been in that cave before. Also, during one scene in the movie, the women have to swim through certain water-logged passages to proceed. But as watchers of the Discovery Channel know, if a caver swims through water, (which in a cave in Appalacia in the winter time is going to be very very cold), and the water's higher than the caver's heart, the clothes have to be stripped off, stored in a sealed bag, and towed along with the caver until they get to a dry perch, dry off, and get dressed again. I'm not saying they should have adhered to this fact of caving because I think this movie needed naked women in it, but because I think an unyielding sense of realism would really help set the audience up for the unreality of what's to come. Ridley Scott understood this, I think.
In Alien, half the film takes place before we even lay eyes on the Monster. And throughout that first half of the film, we're inundated with exclusive, jargon-laced dialogue that comes off as mind-numbingly real -- real enough to make the audience feel as though they're watching a sci-fi documentary. So when the Monster shows up, we believe its real, and its scary. The Exorcist operated under the same dictum. Now I understand that some running was probably necessary for a horror film of this kind, and maybe there wasn't enough screentime to show all the facets of caving as it really is, but I think the director would have had more success with this film had he clung tenaciously to the idea of making The Descent the ultimate caving movie, and that means taking it very seriously.
Not that I'm trying to sell myself as an expert of any kind -- I've only been to "show caves" and did some light caving when I was a kid in Boy Scouts back when they called it 'spelunking' -- but it's not hard to spot the places in the film when Marshall cuts corners to expedite the action, and I think this was the wrong way to go. Though overall, I forgave some of the goofier moments and sat back to enjoy the Monsters. Marshall definitely knows his horror movies, and surprisingly, references Carrie more than once. It came off more like weird homage to me than an instance of ripping off a superior film, so I liked it. I reccomend taking a look at The Descent, if not in the theaters, than when it comes out on DVD.
[By the way: Peggy didn't like it.]