Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Descent

I saw The Descent tonight, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It's easily the best horror movie of the year (or of last year, if you're not Australian), and the only real problem with the film is that some may find the ending unsatisfying.

The film follows six women on a caving trip in the Appalachian mountains. Among the women are Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), whose husband and child were killed a year ago in a car accident, and her friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza).

Things begin going wrong when a cave-in collapses a tunnel behind them, and Juno reveals she has deceptively brought them to an unexplored cave system. Soon the six are suffering from injuries, running out of equipment, and beginning to hallucinate. That's when they discover that they're not alone in the cave system - that something deadly lived down here long before they arrived. The real horror begins, though, when they find that whatever's down in the caves is far less frightening than what the women brought along with them.

It's a strong film, mixing a Hollywood sensibility for horror with a British feel for reality and for character. It's frequently derivative of genre classics such as The Shining and Aliens and yet at the same time it seems determined to break as many horror conventions as it can manage.

It's frequently frightening, and it achieves this not with fake-outs and sudden surprises, but with an honestly disturbing underpinning. I found the early parts of movie featuring the women crawling through narrow caves uncomfortable to watch (as an admitted cave-claustrophobe myself) and the scene involving the setting of a splintered bone is similarly like to cause averted eyes.

This is a movie filled with strong female characters. Despite being a horror movie about six women in an extreme situation, the film never resorts to gratuitous nudity, convenient bisexuality, or any use of stereotypes. The characters are strong, intelligent, resourceful people in a genuinely terrifying situation. Protagonists Sarah and Juno in particular are two of the most gripping female characters I've encountered in the last year of film. Juno comes off very much like Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, only better, while Shauna Macdonald as Sarah manages to carry much of a very offbeat ending solely on the strength of her presence and acting.

The direction and cinematography are both praiseworthy, though not world-shattering. The film's visual style uses stark, stylised shots that still retain a very storyboarded look. It makes use of the uncommon lighting angles and colours inherent in a caving expedition to turn very simple sets and props into incredible artistic achievements. Top-notch costuming and makeup do a great deal of the film's characterisation work, and this is one of the few films where you're really likely to notice these elements carrying the production.

The film's sound design is understated but effective. You'll rarely have cause to notice the soundtrack or the effects, but they complement and support the action perfectly. You won't walk away wanting a copy of the soundtrack, but it would certainly be a poorer film without some of the tense music used.

This is a film which will alternately fill and defy your expectations - one moment you'll be chafing at the film's constant homages to its predecessors, and the next a plot twist will have you whispering in amazement to the person next to you. If you're a horror fan, you definitely need to see this film, and if you're a less dedicated horror watcher, there's definitely worse things you could spend your ticket money on.


Jey said...

Sounds good.

Typo in second last line: 'worse things' not 'worth things'.

GregT said...

Thank you. Fixed now.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this film as well. It came out in the States this past summer (when I used to go to the cinema. Before WOW :-P). I spoke to one of my British friends, and she told me that the American and British endings were different! She described the original ending, and I think I prefer it to the American one. Definitely left you wondering even more WTF was going on.

GregT said...

Which ending did you get? We got the one where Juno and Sarah face off, then Sarah has a whole daylight sequence, and then pretty much the last shot is the child's birthday cake. (That should be fairly safe for those who haven't seen it.)