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Friday, July 14, 2006

There's no coming up for any air

One of the most memorable lines in "The Descent" goes: "Everything bad that can happen has already happened and you're still here. It can't get any worse than this!" -- and as soon as the words are spoken you know that unbeknown to the audience, a little green light has gone off somewhere in the frame, giving permission to let the carnage begin in earnest. At this point, we've already seen a terrible car accident, glimpses of a creepy, crouching figure deep in a cave and a woman trapped in a narrow passage miles underground while an avalanche of rocks fall around her. Bad things have happened aplenty, and we know it can only get worse.

The Descent Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
News photo
Shauna MacDonald in "The Descent" (C) CELADORFILMS 2005

Director: Neil Marshall
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 15, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"The Descent" is a gem of a horror film, though to categorize it as such would be doing it a disfavor. Let's say it's a gem of a film in which the scare factor is one of the predominant traits. Directed by one of the U.K.'s emerging filmmakers, Neil Marshall ("Dog Soldiers"), "The Descent" goes to prove what a brilliant, tightly-knit staff/cast can do on a small budget and pure, undiluted inventiveness.

Toward the end there's one brief sequence where the viewer can come up for air and exhale, only to be dragged a minute later back into a labyrinth of nonstop scare, no-exit claustrophobia, betrayal, pitch-black darkness and gore, gore, gore.

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is one of the members of an all-female, adventure expedition group that apparently meets up a few times a year to engage in stuff like rock climbing, white-water rafting and other adrenaline-inducing pursuits. But on the way home from one such trip Sarah's car collides with a truck, killing her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and 4-year-old daughter Jessie (Molly Kayll), who had come to pick her up for the ride home. This opening sequence is gruesome: the headlong impact of the truck, the split-second insert frame of Jessie's head impaled on a pole. In the hospital, Sarah regains consciousness and freaks out in the corridor while stonily indifferent nurses and patients step around her sobbing, convulsing body.

A year later, Sarah has recovered enough to join in another expedition, this time to investigate one of the many cave systems located somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. Heading the group is the super-fit and capable Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who explains to the other women that she chose this site because "this should be good for Sarah." However, once the group make their descent and take stock of the darkness, dankness and the maze of narrow tunnels, they question whether this was such a good idea. They get lost, they get scared, and most of all they deeply regret having entrusted Juno with their welfare. But they've come too far to turn back so there's no other alternative other than to forge on and find an exit.

Apart from the brief glimpse of Paul we get at the beginning, the film is an all-female affair, but to Marshall's credit, there's very little bitching and/or screaming. Such horror-story cliches have no place in the urgency and desperation that define this story. Witness the scene where rock-climbing expert Rebecca (the very comely and fragile-looking Saskia Mulder) must hammer pegs in a rock ceiling so everyone can cross from one precipice to the other. She must do this while suspended by a single strand of rope, relying on just her arm muscles to proceed, hammer, proceed -- all the sloooooow, agonizing way to the other side. And when they finally make it there, panting and ready to pass out through exhaustion, what should they encounter but a herd of slimy, mutant creatures that live in the cave and subsist upon the living flesh of unfortunate animals that happen to fall in. Like them.

From here on the story begins its rapid, turbulent descent into no-holds-barred mayhem. According to the production notes, Marshall disclosed almost no information to his cast about "the enemy" they would meet. Add to that the fact that the whole thing was shot with as little light as possible, creating frequent black-out moments. It's hugely unnerving, but the facial expressions on the women (a lot of closeups caked in mud and blood and tears) tell us that it was a million times worse for them. Marshall is brilliant, but after this he probably didn't get a whole lot of dinner invitations.

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