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The Descent Review

By Shawn McKenzie 08/06/2006

The Synopsis:

A Scottish extreme sports buff named Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald) gets together every year with her two best friends, English teacher Beth O’Brien (Alex Reid) and Asian-American climber Juno Caplan (Natalie Mendoza.)  This year their trek is white water rafting, and Sarah’s husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) are waiting for them at the end.  Beth notices a weird moment between Paul and Juno, which indicates that they may have been having an affair, but she doesn’t tell Sarah anything about it.  On the way to their hotel, Paul and Jessica are killed in an auto accident.  She wakes up in the hospital…but not until she begins having odd visions.  A year goes by, and she is still haunted by visions of the tragedy.  Beth has remained a good friend to her, but Juno has bailed on her (probably because of her alleged affair with Paul and her guilt surrounding it.)  Juno does come back for their annual trek, and she invites Sarah and Beth to come with her as a way of healing.  The trek this year is to go cave exploring in the Appalachian Mountains, and they have brought three other women with them.  They are:  Scandinavian professional climber Rebecca Van Ney (Saskia Mulder); med student Sam Van Ney (Myanna Buring), Rebecca’s younger half-sister; and pot-smoking Irish BASE jumper Holly Mills (Nora-Jane Noone.)  They all gather in an Appalachian cabin and get to know one another.  The next morning, they go to a pre-arranged cave set up by Juno and begin their exploring.  Things seem to be going okay at first, and they start having some fun.  That fun is short-lived when a tunnel that they were exploring suddenly caves in.  They figured that they would be all right, since Juno had the map with her.  It’s at this time that Juno confesses that she didn’t have the map with her, because they weren’t exploring a “tourist trap”-type cave.  In her ill-advised attempt to help Sarah get over her grief, she decided to pick a cave that isn’t on any map, and she planned on being the first to discover it (she even wanted to name it after Sarah.)  There isn’t time to fight though, because they need to find a way out.  Holly, in her impatience, runs after what she thinks is sunlight, but it turns out to be reflections of sulfur excretions off the rocks.  She falls down a hole and breaks her leg, and the others repel down the hole to help her out.  Meanwhile, Sarah wanders off and sees a Crawler…a humanoid creature who is pale and blind, but with very fine-tuned hearing.  They capture their prey on the surface and bring it down into the caves for mealtime.  The girls appear to be food on delivery to them.  The explorers fight to stay alive while trying to find a way out…all while Sarah is continuing to hear her daughter’s laugh and having visions of the girl’s birthday cake…making her own personal descent into madness.

The Review:

I have to give kudos to the promotional company in charge of Lionsgate Films.  They did a smart thing when they said that The Descent was latest horror film by the studio that gave us Saw and Hostel.  Those two movies are some of the sickest, coolest horror movies in the last couple of years.  It was because of that campaign that I was looking forward to seeing the movie.  Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as good as those movies…but I think that I now know why.

Writer/director Neil Marshall made this movie, following his debut feature, 2002’s Dog Soldiers (a werewolf movie that might make my colleague Reggie McDaniel happy.)  It was originally released in Europe last year, but Lionsgate wisely decided to hold off on releasing it over here until now, so that they wouldn’t have people comparing it to the PG-13-rated box office bomb The Cave.  They also changed the ending though, and it resulted in making it confusing.  I don’t want to give it away, but I’m guessing that it didn’t “test well” with American audiences.  The version we were given ends up not making any sense (I brought my brother to the screening, and he agreed with me that the ending sucked because of that reason.)  I did some research, and I found a synopsis of the original ending, makes much more sense.

In general, I’m not a big fan of European horror movies.  I can think of two specific examples of European horror movies that I didn’t like…but in hindsight, they may have sucked because of the editing for the benefit of us too-sensitive Yanks.  2002’s UK export 28 Days Later (released over here in 2003) had its ending changed to make it more palatable for us.  While the new ending made sense, it didn’t make the movie any better in my opinion.  20th Century Fox, their distribution company, tacked on the original ending on later prints, so I may need to check it out someday (I saw it with the new ending originally.)  The other example I have is 2003’s French export High Tension (released over here in 2005.)  It was edited in order to receive the R-rating, making the ending perplexing.  I could check out the “unrated” version on DVD to see if it is any better, but for some reason, I think that it might not change my opinion of the movie.

The Descent does have its good points, which is why I’m not trashing it completely.  It has some good acting, and there is some actual character development…mainly concerning the Sarah/Juno/Paul affair.  The Crawlers didn’t scare me (my brother and several other people who attended the preview screening commented that they looked like a taller version of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy), but there was a few times that it made me jump.  Also, Marshall filmed the movie using only the light provided by the main characters (flashlights, miner helmets, night-vision camcorders, etc.), which contributed to the claustrophobic feeling of the movie.  I thought that was a creative decision on his part.

The Descent may not have been as good for me as Saw and Hostel, but it wasn’t the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen.  Overseas, it was a critical and commercial success, and it looks to be a critical one over here as well (commercial success will have to be determined by your ticket dollars.)  Maybe the next time I see a European horror movie, I’ll probably have to see the screening in Europe before American hands monkey with it.

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Ratings System:


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