We all know the classic slasher film formula. There's a group of young people, girls and guys, and the savvy viewer has fun sorting through them to pick out the one girl who'll live -- the Final Girl -- the one who's a little more practical, less boy-crazy, and perhaps more boyish than those other flighty chicks. She's the one bound for a transformation. She'll go through hell and come back out, bloodied, triumphant. Or, at least, alive.
Now, imagine a film full of Final Girls. They're all capable, powerful women. They're all a bit boyish, in their individual way. They're all ready to face a challenge. No one is sneaking to the shed to have sex. No one weeps in a closet, awaiting their sure fate. They're all fighters.
This film is The Descent. And it makes for a fascinating psychological investigation of female bonding and antagonism. As well as a damn good horror flick.
Genre fans know director Neil Marshall already from 2002's Dog Soldiers, a gritty, psychological werewolf film set in Scotland. The settings were gorgeous, the dialogue and relationships believable, and the gore quotient perfectly satisfactory. Marshall brings all those strengths to this project as well.
The Descent is serious -- indeed, almost artistic -- about its horror. This is no comedic splatter spoof, much as I love those. This is not a film that will have you laughing at decapitations and cheering on the gore. This film is an exercise in psychological triggers.
Six girls down a hole in a cave system is, perhaps, the best horror film set-up ever. You don't like confined spaces? Try wiggling through tiny tunnels, only just wide enough for your head and shoulders. You don't like the dark? There's no light down there. You'd like somewhere to run? Try aforementioned tiny tunnels. You don't like being surprised by hideous monsters? Well, I'll just say your luck doesn't look good.
And this, as you might imagine, makes for some fascinating psychological material. Before I say more about this, let's review the plot. The film opens with Sarah driving with her husband and young daughter, Jessica. There's a terrible accident, rendered uncomfortably graphically for the death of a child, and Sarah ends up the lone survivor. Sarah's closest friends rally around her and plan a caving trip. Once the girls show up, it becomes apparent there are fissures in the group; only Beth was with Sarah after the accident and stayed with her. The others had various excuses (one speaks up with the particularly crappy excuse of studying for midterms). And Sarah is not yet in anything approaching good shape. The past is constantly with her, haunting (so to speak) her attempts to get back to a normal life.
The girls head into the cave, and before long they realize that they are A) lost and B) being stalked by something that isn't quite human. Deadly shenanigans ensue, combined with Indiana Jones-esque traversing of caverns and impossible jumps. The situation tests all the women's athletic prowess and their psychological strength. Any one of them holds up better than I think I would. But before too long, the strain begins to have its effect, and not everyone who dies in this film dies at the monsters' hands.
Along the way, the girls' acting is excellent. The three main characters, Beth (played by Alex Reid), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), and Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), particularly shine.
The aesthetic becomes rather film noir, as lighting is either nonexistent or controlled and artificial, whether from flashlights or the eerie red glow of flares. The moral universe of the film also owes something to film noir, as no rebirth, however promising, can be permanent; the past always lurks, just behind a corner, ready to jump out.
Speaking of the ever-lurking past, the film pays tribute to its forebears throughout, in scenes that echo memorable moments in Carrie and Apocalypse Now, to mention a few. Plus, their cabin in the woods reminded me of the Evil Dead films. But that may just be because any cabin in the woods reminds me of Evil Dead.
So, overall, this is a quite good film. It's actually scary (and I'm very, very difficult to scare). The characters are interesting, and you care about them. Or some of them. And, technically, it's impressive.
All that said, I must be snarky on one thing. MINOR SPOILER. They meet some humanoid monster things down in the cave. These monsters supposedly track their prey by sound, and only by sound. Thus you get various scenes in which victims cower right next to their would-be murderers, trying very hard not to make a peep. Certainly, the beasties are blind, since they live in complete darkness.
However, it seems hard to believe that they didn't develop some of the other skills that night hunters often possess: the ability to sense body heat, to smell prey nearby (and all these girls are super-sweaty), or even to hear really well. Cuz while these girls are hiding their sweaty, smelly selves in some crack, they're also breathing hard. Thus, believability of monsters isn't real high. However, if you don't mind that, the film still has a lot to offer.
Monsters, suspense, creepy lighting, plenty o' scares, hot chicks in bloody, wet clothes. There's something for any horror fan here. And, anyway, since when are horror film monsters believable?
If they were, we'd all be watching women swatting small, angry wasps in their kitchens. And then anxiously awaiting the release of Swarm: Return of the Wasp Queen.
I'll take sightless cavemen any day.