The Descent
By: Trist Jones on November 28. 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: Neil Marshall
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring, Molly Kayll
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Country: UK
Australian Release Date: November 23, 2006
Distributor: Icon Film Distribution
Running Time: 95 minutes
Fans of modern horror, prepare to be offended whilst I prepare to be annihilated by Digital Retribution's general readership, as I am about to review what has been deemed "the scariest film since Alien" (how many does that make it now?), and I'm going to say, right here and now: I didn't like it.

Neil Marshall, director of The Descent is also the man responsible for Dog Soldiers,and if you enjoyed Dog Soldiers, you'll probably get a real bang out of The Descent. I wasn't the biggest fan of Dog Soldiers – it had some great ideas and moments of brilliance, but the mediocre heavily outweighed the fantastic and ultimately dragged it down into the depths and this is pretty much the way I feel about The Descent. It starts off pretty solidly, and you'll be amazed at how lethally accurate two deviant pipes can be when cars are involved. We get a nice, well constructed introduction to our key cast, but as much as people say "they aren't your typical monster fodder" you can pretty much pick out who'll make it X-distance into the film and what sort of character archetype they represent. I found myself wishing that I wouldn't be right about particular moments I had foreseen, or particular character developments, only to be let down (not hugely, but significantly) constantly.

Just a quick aside, and I better make my stance on this clear so it doesn't sound like just another pissy rant, I had expected pretty big things of this film. Word came from even my most trusted buddies that this was the scariest, most original horror film in years. All the big international horror sites were giving it glowing reviews and for someone to essentially give it the "Alien of Today" title – as one major internet critic is quoted as doing – you expect a lot of things. The unfortunate thing is, when you watch a lot of horror, this film really isn't all that special. It does a couple of cool things, but when you take away the aesthetics, it's pretty by the book, hence my disappointment.

The idea is scary enough in itself – not entirely original – but hey. A group of experienced woman trapped in one of the worst places imaginable with creatures of unknown origin (though assumptions can be made). It's the tried and true combination of claustrophobia (which this film nails in it's early steps), unseen attackers (for the most part) and a less than likely group of characters who we can safely assume are just resourceful enough to allow at least one of them to make it to the end. It's been done a million times over with varying success, and The Descent manages to hold it's own pretty well against the competition, just not against the classics.

As a complete package, The Descent is a pretty solid effort. Technically it's what you'd expect (outside of some horrifically rendered computer generated bats), it doesn't really attempt anything new or flashy (ala The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's through the bullet hole shot) and never really deviates into the completely unbelievable the way The Cave did. There are a number of odd looking set pieces – one in particular is made even stranger by a filter effect that, although it's almost a case of blink and you'll miss it, kind of takes you out of the film for a second because it's visually jarring and there's no real justification for it.

The key element to this film though, as it usually is with these Clausto-horrors, is the monster lurking in the darkness. In the beginning, they are pretty well handled, especially in their introduction (which is damn creepy). Great design, clearly well thought out, though their origins are questionable and never really brought up. Still, they look pretty cool, except for the female, who looks more like a naked ugmo than she does the other cave dwellers. The biggest problem I had with the creatures however, was that once the final act starts to kick in, these freaks start pouring in from everywhere, and it just doesn't work. What starts off nice with the whole "what the Hell is that?" and "how many are there?" thinking becomes more of a case of "Oh, this thing again," and "Wow, there's a lot of them – why/how are there so many?", which in turn significantly drops the fright factor they previously sustained rather well. There are a few other glaring inconsistencies, especially when it comes to the monster parts. For example, earlier sequences involving the tighter shafts throughout the cave, and their journey further beneath the surface does become genuinely harrowing, and the claustrophobia generated by a couple of moments does actually sit up there with the best, but the problem is that it's all too short lived, and once the creature's start coming out to play, all those terrifyingly tight tunnels seem to disappear, making way for plenty of running room, grappling room, and in some cases enough room to kick some Darwinian Nightmare ass Buffy style.

However my biggest gripe, the cardinal sin and cause of much eye rolling at too many points in this film was the fact that, in spite of being this supposed saviour of sorts for the genre, relies on the cheapest form of scares far too often. It's like it plays its hand really well and you think this is a promising fright fest, until it decides to play (repetitively too might I add) the one card that automatically takes it from being a well strung tale of terror to a festival of garish noise. That's right – The Descent pulls the "BOO!" card, and far too often for it's own good considering how well it starts out. Not a single one of them managed to elicit so much as a blink either.

For those somewhat let down by the beasts or news of the scares, or perhaps just curious about the gore factor, The Descent, while not overly gory, does have it's fair share of graphic violence. Not quite as full on or borderline ludicrous as Dog Soldiers (super glue isn't used to treat any wounds here), The Descent presents its violence fairly heavy handedly and thankfully, realistically (except for one necksnapping moment - it stank of Buffy). There is one character who surprisingly pops back up later, which is bizarre when you consider what happens to her. Oh, and for fans of uncomfortable looking wounds, there is a pretty fresh leg break in this that results in some protrusive bone and cries of agony.

The other thing that's sort of detrimental to this, and even detracts from the impact of the aforementioned skeletal disaster, is the fact that you don't really give two shits about any of the cast. Once you know them, which you do pretty early on, you kind of sit and find yourself thinking "Who's gonna bite it and how?" The relationships between the girls in the group are only mildly interesting, and none of them are ever really developed beyond "This is my name, this is what I do when I'm not spelunking". The performances are generally pretty good, but the only really noticeable job is turned in by Alex Reid, who plays best friend to the sook-cum-Ripley Sarah (played by Shauna MacDonald). Melbourne's own Natalie Mendoza plays Juno, whose character is a little bit all over the place and the source of almost as much dislike as Nora-Jane Noone's expected Irish moron Holly. The other girls are fairly peripheral and really only seem to be there to die.

A good friend of mine was surprised at how much I didn't like this film, and Lord knows I went in wanting to, but after the opening sequence, and subsequent nightmare (which was met by boo-reaction jolts from much of the audience, but immense laughter by some, should spawn it's own series of films – Revenge of the Random Pipe to the Face!) I had an aching feeling that I was going to be disappointed. Maybe I was a victim of hype, I don't know. I even got to see the supposedly better UK cut, with the extended ending and everything, but with all the talk of endings and which was better, they were both pretty bland. 

For the seasoned horror fan, The Descent is decent enough; it's just not all that as so many claim. It's not going to redefine the genre, and it certainly hasn't propelled Neil Marshall into the Hall of the Greats, such as Argento, Carpenter, (dare I say it) Fulci, or even Craven, as one prominent horror website so boldly claims. Sure, it's okay, but it's one film – let's not forget Paul Anderson and Event Horizon
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