In honor of the Four Word Film Review, which is celebrating its nine-year anniversary this week, I will make this one particularly brief: Six chicks with picks.
On second thought, that wasn't very satisfying. How about, cave mouth swallows hope. Nah, that ain't cutting it either. Underground regressive therapy ordeal? Whatever length, any description of The Descent is going to carry the same b-movie connotations. The film's brilliance is in how it takes those low expectations, and the implicit inability to sucker you in, and then still proceeds to scare the living daylights out of you.
Neil Marshall has made a career of exceeding expectations. His first film, Dog Soldiers, was a low-budget update of the werewolf mythos that eschewed CGI and made the most of good acting and an original premise. It was a decent film, but The Descent marks a definite evolution as a filmmaker. He wisely chose to shoot most of the scenes with natural lighting (headlamps, flashlights, flares, etc.), giving the cave itself a truly claustrophobic feel. Although perhaps a bit too homogenous (read: attractive), the actresses all acquit themselves admirably and managed to convince me they were real thrill seekers and not just prima donnas who had spent a week on a climbing wall. One scene in particular is right out of an "extreme sports" documentary and I never doubted for a second that these chicks could kick my ass. With that said, the real stars here are the "crawlers." I don't want to say too much about them, other than that they are very realistic and very frightening. Marshall chose to use real actors, instead of stuntmen or dancers, and they bring to their roles an authenticity that rivals Alien in its ability to evoke atavistic fear of the Other. Though the gore is modest by the standards of some other films I have discussed, the icky quotient is high enough to keep most viewers out of caves forever.
To borrow a metaphor from another extreme sport, The Descent flows along at a brisk but still leisurely pace, like a Class 3 river. Though there are a few shock scares here and there, nearly a hour of the film is spent building dread as the team of spelunkers descend further and further into an unmapped cave system. Once the action kicks in, though, it's a sheer drop straight down into Class 5 hell water. Careful of the rocks, folks. They're real killers.
p.s. if the image on the poster looks familiar, that's because it copies a famous portrait of Dali by Philippe Halsman called In Voluptate Mors. The same iconography was used, though less obviously, on some posters for The Silence of the Lambs.
Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
My psychological status: