A dark tale

The Descent

The Descent
Directed by Neil Marshall. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

A year after a tragic accident, a group of female weekend adventurers gathers in the remote Appalachians to reconnect through a seemingly casual spelunking expedition. Soon after entering the cavern, however, their return route collapses and the women find themselves in a claustrophobic challenge to find another way out of the subterranean chambers. Complicating things to the nth degree is the realization that they are not alone in the dark …

While UK director Neil Marshall’s sophomore effort is more polished in execution than his debut (the cheeky werewolves vs. army squad-on-maneuvers splatfest Dog Soldiers), here The Descent is moderately flawed in its over-attention to set-up, essentially 50 minutes of padding in the Lifetime Channel vein, spending an inordinate amount of time (for a horror film) on character development for a band of characters that are virtually indistinguishable from each other once they don their gear and descend into the darkness.

It takes 20 minutes for the characters to even arrive at the mouth of the cave and begin their descent. But once the meandering passes, the final act of the film provides easily some of the most unsettling set pieces in modern horror coupled by a handful of well-earned jolts, delivering with 40 minutes of straight-out, balls-to-the-wall (so to speak) grueling horror.

In comparison though, The Descent is most assuredly superior to last year’s similarly themed CGI flop The Cave (which in essence stole the film’s thematic thunder and will undoubtedly carry undeserved baggage to hesitant theater-goers). Which is a shame, for with a near-ambient soundtrack and deft use of location, Marshall works the claustrophobia factor for all it’s worth and ultimately delivers with one of the better horror films in recent memory. The refreshingly teenager-free cast’s acting is uniformly strong and the perils that the characters face are decidedly well-realized, with a welcome return to the subtlety of organic makeup and found location over CGI tweaking.

Unfortunately, Canadian distributor Lionsgate supposedly felt that the original ending was too confusing for American audiences to follow, and so trimmed it back to deliver with a coda that plays out a bit silly, and in turn is much more ambiguous than it was originally.