I’m always up for a good scare at the movies. But it seems, more and more, today’s so-called scary movies aren’t up to the task of scaring me. Most contemporary horror is comprised of cheap shocks and festivals of blood and guts, more stomach-churning than terrifying. Frequently, the scripts for horror films are so dumbed down, and the execution by the directors so color-by-numbers in their approach, that patrons eager for a scream are more likely to let loose a chuckle.
It’s extremely rare to find a horror film that gives you the tingles long after you’ve left the theater, whose very mission it is to unnerve you, utterly and remorselessly, to make you feel unsafe. Only two films in the past few years accomplished this feat: The Blair Witch Project and Gore Verbinski’s remake of the Japanese horror film, The Ring. I had hoped The Descent, a highly touted horror import from the U.K., in which six thrill-seeking women embark on the spelunking trip from hell — would fall into this category. But, thanks to a dunderheaded decision by the American releasing studio, Lionsgate, The Descent turns out to be less than transcendent. When you leave it, you leave it behind. But more on that in a moment.
I’m Carrie White and I burn in hell: Macdonald
Admittedly, The Descent chugs along better than most modern-day terror trains. Writer-director Neil Marshall has an instinctual grasp of pacing — the movie’s build is slow, steady, simmering, eventually erupting into full, roiling boil-over. And he has a gift for psychological subtext that infuses the narrative with a nasty, poisonous moral venom.
A shocking prologue sets up the dynamics to come, and it defines the strained relationship between Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), a relationship that will come to bear unexpectedly powerful fruit late in the film. Sarah and Juno are part of a group of six girlfriends who partake in extreme adventures, meeting annually to go mountain climbing, white water rafting, or, in the case of The Descent, caving in the backwoods of Appalachia. Juno — arrogant, proud, and incapable of dealing with emotional trauma of any kind — is the group’s alpha wolf, and she makes a decision on this exploration that puts her friends in a perilous situation that goes way beyond getting trapped underground. For deep within this particular cavern lurk humanoid creatures that are anything but friendly. Albino pale, slick with slime, and monstrously fearsome, they’re quick to rip into and feed savagely on anything they deem edible. Guess who’s coming to dinner?
The monsters — which have a delightfully depraved Weekly World News appeal — don’t show up until the final hour. Prior to that, Marshall gets a ton of mileage out of the heavy internal baggage carried by the women, whose situation grows increasingly dire and intense after their only obvious way out is blocked by a rockslide. Marshall maintains an impressive sense of claustrophobia throughout these sequences, as the women press forward into the unknown and directly into the path of the creatures.
Where The Descent departs from your garden variety hack-and-slash is in its six female characters. They’re not victims being punished by men for their sexuality, the standby for most horror films, but are iron-willed warrior-women who refuse go down without a fight. It’s during their fights with the creatures that Marshall ratchets up the gore, almost to operatic proportions. It’s so excessive at times, it fails to gross you out. Fortunately, there is one extremely potent shocker, a sudden, unpredictable injury to one of the women that catches you by the throat. It’s a brilliant move by Marshall, one that informs a critical moment near the film’s end.
And regarding that ending: It’s the movie’s downfall. Reportedly, The Descent had a bleaker wrap-up in its original British cut. A new ending has been affixed for the American version since Lionsgate has deemed Americans incapable of enduring a completely downbeat ending. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, but it seems pointless and watered down. And it’s the one thing that keeps The Descent from attaining that gnaw at your soul, haunt your dreams status. And it may be what keeps Marshall’s film from securing classic status. We’ll just have to wait for the DVD to see if the original ending produces the lasting, primal terror we horror fans so desperately crave.