There are three forces terrorizing the women of the deeply (hyuck) satisfying UK horror film "The Descent" â€” the crumbling caves in which they’re trapped, the sightless, flesh-eating monsters who happen to live there, and each other. And as much as the personal dramas will likely infuriate anyone hoping for a straightforward display of gore, they’re also our favorite aspect of the film: Finally, a flick for the frenemies in the audience! Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) are old extreme sports buddies who gather with three other friends for a caving expedition that’s also a chance for Sarah to prove her resilience â€” she’s still fragile from losing her husband and daughter in an accident the year before, a horrifying scene director Neil Marshall uses to open the film with economic effectiveness.
As odd as it sounds, a pervasive sense of economy is the strongest aspect of the film. Made on a relatively lean budget of around $6.5 million, with no big names stars and no swing for flashy special effects, "The Descent" gets by on sheer filmmaking craft. Long before they discover they’re not alone in the caves, the women are clearly uncomfortably not in their element. Creeping through passages narrow enough to bring out anyone’s lurking inner claustrophobe, peering into darkness their flashlights can scarcely make a dent in â€” they’re not headed anywhere humans were meant to, particularly once a cave-in leaves them with no route except to climb further down, hoping to come across another exit. When the monsters (they’re kind of cave people who’ve evolved to live in the dark) finally arrive (in one of the best reveals we can remember â€” a scene that makes startling use of the night-vision lens on a camcorder), it’s somewhat disappointing. Monsters, no matter how well done, are familiar territory. Climbing hopelessly deeper into the bowels of the earth â€” now that’s fucking creepy.
Only the initial three women are more than lightly sketched out, and even then, it’s only Sarah and Juno who are fully-conceived human beings â€” Macdonald’s Sarah as a shadow of her former, clearly formidable self, whose inevitable self-discovery moment is invigoratingly grim, and Mendoza’s Juno, who’s somewhere between larger-than-life earth goddess and egotistical psycho. But kudos to Marshall for tackling a type of relationship rarely put on screen â€” that long-term friendship from which most genuine affection has eroded, leaving only the surprisingly sturdy ties of social obligation and shared history. If anything, the combined horrors of the film are a testament to how much it can take for two people to admit that maybe they haven’t been good friends to each other for a while now; that actually, they might sort of hate each other. It’s long in coming, and it’s hardly a feel-good moment, but it is satisfying: Take that, you bloody bitch.
["The Descent" is being released with in the US with a different ending than the UK theatrical version â€” having managed to see both, we can tell you that probably less than a minute has been lopped off the US release. The bleaker UK ending has a bit of "Brazil" to it.]
Opens wide August 4th.
+ "The Descent" (Lionsgate)