Can audiences weaned on the murky sadism of the "Saw" movies and the "Hills Have Eyes" remake even recognize what a truly scary movie looks and feels like? I'd like to hope so, because Neil Marshall's "The Descent" is as freaky and skin-crawlingly effective a film as I've seen in years, which may be why it seems like it's flying under the radar of all but rabid genre fans.
Perhaps mainstream viewers are hearing the premise of "The Descent" and figuring "If I didn't want to see 'The Cave' last year, why would I want to see it now?"
Certainly there are surface-level similarities between the two stories of wayward spelunkers discovering some unpleasant creatures in the darkness, if not qualitative similaries.
In "The Descent," six relatively attractive and only vaguely differentiated women set out for a day of strenuous cave exploration somewhere in Appalachia. Marshall, whose previous film "Dog Soldiers" was a hit in England but failed to make a ripple in the States, builds the film with careful attention to tone. The opening scene introduces the shocking tragedy in our heroine Sarah's (Shauna Macdonald) past, before the movie flashes to the present for several scenes of banal banter and female bonding humor. The actors -- Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone and MyAnna Buring -- are introduced and given just enough characteristics that you care about them as a unit when things begin going wrong down in the uncharted caves.
At first, their problems are scary, but basic -- they get lost, stuck in tight quarters, have to navigate over deep crevasses. Marshall develops tension in these scenes, but the only scares are superficial genre shocks, cued by bursts of music or hard cuts. It's only when the women realize that the cave has other occupants, pale humanoid creatures called "crawlers" in the press notes, that Marshall really begins to work. Using mostly available light (flares, torches and flashlights, plus one of those convenient hand-held video cameras with night vision that characters in movies like this always seem to have post-"Blair Witch"), Marshall creates a world in which there always feels like there's something mysterious stalking in the back of the frame. And when he actually decides that it's time for violence, he rises to the gore challenge as well.
Although obviously low-budget, "The Descent" is a minor marvel. The cave locations are almost entirely constructed sets, but they feel properly cold, wet and unpleasant. And the creatures themselves, still recognizably human in their movements, are designed well enough that they can stand up to close-ups, which is more than you could say for whatever CGI creature was killing the moronic heroes of "The Cave."
Marshall doesn't belabor the biological explanation for the crawlers, nor does he delve very deeply into Sarah's psychological baggage. Suffice to say that she's got issues, but her friends are trying to help, which makes them sympathetic enough to root for.
With virtually no comic relief in its final 45 minutes, "The Descent" may actually be too depressing and too scary for fans of escapist, brainless horror. And, really, that's a solid recommendation.