Film Reviews

THE DESCENT

By • Aug 4th, 2006 •

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Lionsgate Films / Celador Films
MPAA rating R / Running time — 99 minutes

QUOTE: See this movie, it’s terrific with high tension all the way through. Just don’t go spelunking.

First, about me. (An acclaimed author has written a truth worth repeating: “All writing is autobiographical.”)

Being a native New Yorker, my first visit to caves was a weekend at the breathtaking CarlsbadCaverns National Park in New Mexico. It’s so huge there are a restaurant, gift shop, and elevators in its well-tended environment. It is cold, damp, and crowded with organized tours, and it is impossible to wander off by yourself. The other cave I visited was the Maquiné Cave in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Opened especially for our visit by our military police hosts, the cave is famous for its stalactites and stalagmites, but there is only one perfectly designed way in and out.

It was my almost-entry into the Great Pyramid at Giza that made me aware that I was claustrophobic. Bending down, with a group of people crowded right behind me, I took fours crawls in and suddenly screamed and stopped. Everyone had to crouch out backwards. Apparently, this is not uncommon. The Giza staff promptly handed me my entrance fee back.

I also visited the catacombs of St. Sebastianvia the Appia Antica in Rome but it was in the catacombs in Cappedocia, Turkey, that I felt the effects of claustrophobia. At first deceptively large, once deep down inside the catacombs, I started to get a feeling of suffocation and disorientation. Panic crept over me. I declined to go much further and just waited for our guide and my husband to return.

I’m an adventurous traveler, but adventure sports, like spelunking, are out of the question. Even watching THE DESCENT made me queasy. I did learn a lot about spelunking. Primarily, it is not for giddy teenagers. Six smart, tough U.K. women – experienced in extreme sports – go spelunking in an obscure cave in the U.S.

Three of these friends are skillful sportswomen. The film opens on a dangerous rafting trip. Leaving the rapids, the husband and daughter of one of the women, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) die in a horrific car accident. A year later, Sarah’s best friend – that glance at her husband signaled something – Juno (Natalie Mendoza) – organizes another extreme sport adventure in the Appalachian Mountains. Getting six experienced cavers together, Juno decides to lead them into an un-chartered cave system.

Juno doesn’t tell her friends there is no designated route. Similar to being the first on an untamed mountain, when they make it out, they will be able to name the cave.

These girls are experts and it is thrilling to watch them work their equipment. There’s not one crybaby in the group. No one falls behind to pick up a souvenir. But when they lose their way, falling rocks block their supposed route through the cave, and they have to crawl through a small hole, I got that weird feeling again.* It is Sarah who first glimpses the humanoid creatures stalking them. One by one the women are picked off as the terror mounts. Then there is a shocking event that turns the story around.

These women fight for their lives even though there is no way out of the cave!

I understand from reading about THE DESCENT in Entertainment Weekly (August 4, 2006), that we are not seeing the film as originally shown in the U.K. We get the happy ending! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Note to Lions Gate: “We are not afraid. We can take a little ugly.”

Well, in any case, we purists will have to wait for the DVD version.

As a fan of ultra-horror, if done with the right touch of sadism (a socially approved method of purging our reptilian brain’s blood-lust), I applaud writer-director Neil Marshall’s vision and effectiveness in delivering a harrowing experience with thrilling terror. THE DESCENT confirms that exploring a remote cave is an activity best done with GPS, weapons, and RANGERS, or, more comfortably, in a dark theater.

* Editor’s note, and TECHNICAL SPOILER: I had the pleasure of interviewing director Marshall after a screening of THE DESCENT for the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. The high point of the Q&A – everyone gasped – was when he admitted that not one foot of film was shot in a cave. It was all recreated in a London studio. Of course this makes sense – the chances of injury in a real cave would have been too great; but consider, after you’ve seen the film, how spectacular was the illusion created by the art department, the lighting technicians, and the sound department. It’s the film to beat this year in those departments.


Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Neil Marshall
Producer: Christian Colson
Executive producer: Paul Smith
Director of photography: Sam McCurdy
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Editor: Jon Harris
Costume designer: Nancy Thompson
Special make-up and effects designer: Paul Hyett
Music: David Julyan

Cast:
Sarah: Shauna Macdonald
Juno: Natalie Mendoza
Beth: Alex Reid
Rebecca: Saskia Mulder
Sam: MyAnna Buring
Holly: Nora-Jane Noone
Paul: Oliver Milburn

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