Horror film-makers must hate mobile phones. The classic premise of a group of innocents trapped in a single location, unable to escape or get outside help has been scuppered by the fact that everyone walks around these days with a mobile, able to call their mothers at any time. So budding Brit horror merchant Neil Marshall has set his second film in the one place where mobile networks are yet to reach – deep underground.
A year after she lost her husband and child in a horrific car accident, a woman called Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) reconvenes with her friends for their annual adventure holiday. This time they’re going caving in the Appalachian Mountains, but self-appointed team leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) decides that they need a bit more adventure than usual, so leads them down into a series of previously uncharted caves. A rockfall soon leaves the six women trapped two miles underground, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there seems to be something down there with them.
Neil Marshall made his debut in 2002 with the uneven werewolf yarn Dog Soldiers, but The Descent gets it mostly right. Although the characters aren’t particularly well defined, it is refreshing to have an all-female cast and Marshall to his credit refrains from doing the obvious and having them run around in skimpy Lara Croft-style action gear – these girls get suitably bloody and dirty. Marshall doesn’t waste much time in getting them down into the caves and builds the tension through a few time-and-tested tricks – deathly quiet followed by sudden noises, hordes of bats flying out of nowhere, pulsing music and unnerving, wall-crawling camerawork. The film was largely shot on sets at Pinewood but you wouldn’t know it; a tremendous sense of claustrophobia is generated by the imposing surroundings, particularly in the nerve-jangling scene in which Sarah is trapped in a tiny, collapsing tunnel.
With one of their number badly injured and light sources quickly running out, events take a decided turn for the worse when the team encounter a tribe of subterranean, half-human creatures who live down in the caves. These pale skinned, malformed things are completely blind but hunt using their ears and possess incredible cave-crawling abilities – they are also quite partial to the taste of human flesh. The obvious influence here is Aliens, as the girls enter into a series of running battles through the tunnels using the few weapons that are available to them – pick axes, torches and rocks basically. Like James Cameron, Marshall maintain the tension by keeping the creatures half-glimpsed until near the end, but the excitement does take a bit of a dip once the monsters appear. Much of The Descent’s success relies on the build-up, and once all the surprises have been sprung there isn’t really anywhere else for the film to go – one close-contact fight with a creature looks much like any other. The ending is also a problem, a weird double punch that tries to add a note of ambiguity but merely frustrates. The rest of the film gets by just fine on old-fashioned scares, and there seems little reason for Marshall to break tradition with this unsatisfying pay-off.
Nevertheless, this is one of the strongest British horror flicks for some time, and unlike Dog Soldiers doesn’t undermine the scares with ill-placed humour. Marshall doesn’t hold back on the gore either – bones sticking though flesh, torn out throats, gut munching, eyeball gouging and an entire lake of blood make full use of the 18-certificate, while the prosthetic work on the creatures is top-notch and refreshingly CGI free. Come on down.
British writer and director. Made his feature debut in 2002 with the popular werewolf chiller Dog Soldiers, while 2005's The Descent was a scary girls-in-caves horror. Moved into television, including episodes of Game of Thrones.