For the past few years, fans of horror films, and I mean true fans, have had to subsist on the meager scraps that have been thrown out to them like bits of flesh left undevoured by the walking dead. With the exception of a small handful of films, the horror genre has been dominated by insipid remakes like The Hills Have Eyes, brain-rotting stupidity like Saw, overrated garbage like High Tension, and PG-13 crap that doesn't deserve to be called horror. Hollywood has long known that there's money to be made from scary movies, but the problem is that few filmmakers take the time to craft anything truly terrifying (let alone intelligent). Which is what makes British filmmaker Neil Marshall's The Descent a gift from the gods of horror.
After a tragic accident shatters the life of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), her friends try to help her heal. Along with five others, Sarah embarks on a cave-exploring trip that starts out innocently enough. When a cave-in traps the six women, their situation seems dire enough. But when the ultra-competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza) confesses that she has actually led her friends on an expedition to an unexplored cave, and that she didn't bother to register their trip with Park Services, the situation becomes even more grim. As the women struggle to find a way out of the massive cave, something emerges from the shadows—a pasty white creature that looks almost human. It turns out the intrepid ladies are not alone and that the cave is home to flesh-eating creatures that begin to prey on our heroines.
Taking its time to set up the premise and introduce the characters, The Descent is a beautifully crafted horror film that draws inspiration from such classics as Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing, as well as a slightly less conventional scary movie. "There's nods and winks to Deliverance—that's one of my favorite films," said Marshall during a recent interview. "It's not necessarily a horror film, but it's one of the most terrifying things I saw as a kid."
Marshall, whose previous film was the low-budget but ambitious Dog Soldiers, understands what makes horror effective and delivers a film that is not for the squeamish. The Descent is for those who think the dinner scene in Tobe Hooper's 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is great American cinema. And while he delivers the scares and the gore, Marshall also gives the audience enough time to build a rapport with the doomed characters. By reversing the gender of his cast, using women in roles traditionally played by men, Marshall puts an innovative new spin on what could easily have been a retread of past conventions. But it all seems fresh and new.
Ultimately, The Descent works because of its bleak and brutal blood-splattered approach to horror that harks back to an era before studios discovered they could sanitize the genre and repackage it as bloodless, nonfrightening trash. "One of the reasons to make The Descent the way that I made it was a kind of response to the whole PG-13 horror-movie concept," says Marshall. "I wanted to make a horror movie for my generation, for adults to go in and appreciate on an adult level. It's not for kids—at all."
Opens Friday, Aug. 4. Eastport, Division St., Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Cornelius, Cedar Hills, Evergreen, Sherwood, Cinema 99, Vancouver Plaza.