A Genuinely Creepy Descent

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There's nothing worse than a good horror movie. Most of the classics in the genre — The Evil Dead, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to name a few — have been B-movies. In other words, very campy and a little bit crappy. It's fun to giggle at Bruce Campbell and Jamie Lee Curtis' horror-ific performances, but despite their best efforts, it's rare for such camp to shake you to the core.

Enter The Descent. Written and directed by Neil Marshall, whose Dog Soldiers revolted many in 2002, The Descent provides B-worthy fun along with EEEEEE!!!worthy scares. The film is about six adventure-seeking women on a spelunking trip in the Appalachian Mountains (which look impressively realistic, considering Marshall shot entirely in the U.K. on a low budget). Juno (Natalie Mendoza) invites her best friends along to break new ground in a mysterious cave — partly to satisfy her taste for adventure and partly to help Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) recover from a tragedy that befell her the year before. Marshall lets us get to know these women just enough to care about them, and most of the actors are quite good at pulling off cheesy lines with finesse. As the girls begin their descent into the unknown, they are soon made aware that they're not alone down there.

What makes Marshall's style unique is that he doesn't rely too heavily on gristle and gore. In the film's first half, he leads you to believe you're watching a psychological thriller. But have no fear, horror fans, the gore gets going full throttle once the carnivorous cave creatures appear and the characters have to battle their way out.

Marshall could very well be the Caravaggio of the B-movie. Working in complete darkness, he playfully uses the cavers' equipment as his paintbrush, resulting in two particularly captivating scenes. The first occurs when the girls get their first look inside the cave. The bright red flash from their emergency flare lights up the jagged rocks inside, foreshadowing the hell into which they are about to descend. The second is when Sarah struggles to squeeze through a much-too-tiny tunnel; the audience can see nothing but what her headlight allows, and as it bounces off the oppressive walls we acutely feel her suffocation.

As for a "deeper meaning," Marshall covers that, too. What is most haunting about this film is Sarah's own descent into feral madness. In one close-up, her blue eyes pierce the blood that covers her face, and we realize that she might have transformed into a creature herself.

The Descent was released in Britain to critical adoration last summer, but the concurrent subway bombings in London damaged its box office. Fortunately, it has new hope (and a fresh, slightly less morbid, ending) in the U.S. This film combines grisly images with mind games, and the result is something truly disturbing. Marshall is a director that knows how to make a bad horror movie look good... and that's what's really scary.