Beware, the cave man

Special to The Times

A volatile mix of nail-biting suspense and blood-soaked thrills, "The Descent" is, quite simply, one of those films that puts a permanent crease on the brain of most everyone who has seen it.

The film, which opened Friday, revolves around six women who set out to explore an Appalachian cave as an adventure holiday. In short order they find themselves trapped deep underground, lost in an uncharted cave system. There, they stumble upon a society of carnivorous creatures intent on making the women their next meal.

Throwing down with an emotionally devastating shock even before the close of the opening credits, "The Descent" establishes British writer-director Neil Marshall as a bold and fresh voice in horror filmmaking: Troubling and traumatic, the roiling pressure-cooker of a film takes its characters to the edge of their endurance -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- and by default it pushes audiences there as well.

The film is the de facto American debut for Marshall. His actual first feature, the soldiers-fighting-werewolves "Dog Soldiers," was also a horror film, although it did not receive theatrical distribution in the U.S. Though Marshall says he is interested in other genres as well, there are just some things that horror handles better.

"Obviously, it's a genre that allows you free rein to explore the darker sides of human nature," he said on a recent swing through Los Angeles promoting the film. "You can get away with the downbeat, unhappy, ambiguous ending that you can't get away with in other genres.

"From a personal level, I love watching the audience react to the scares, shuffle nervously in their seats, the sweating. It's the ultimate reward as a horror film director."

And shuffle and sweat they do. As British critic Mark Kermode noted in the Observer, "I jumped, I gasped, I winced, I cringed and, for lengthy periods, I simply held my breath." Or, as John Fallon colorfully added on JoBlo.com: "It's been a while since a horror flick stomped my skull to ashes in its harshness, scared me silly and moved me on an emotional level all at the same time."

The film's serious scares have movie-goers watching through their fingers, but translating that ineffable excitement into ticket sales for a film from a relatively unknown director and without name stars may be as challenging as battling flesh-hungry mutants.

The most recent poster and the film's TV spots explicitly sell "The Descent" as "from the studio that brought you 'Saw' and 'Hostel,' " invoking the names of two previous horror successes from the film's distributor, Lionsgate. Whatever the films actually do or don't have in common, the ads have a distinct "if you like that, get a load of this" angle to them.

"That is something we've never done," said Tim Palen, co-president of marketing at Lionsgate, about referencing their own previous releases in the ad campaign for "The Descent."

"We don't use the name of 'Saw' in vain. It's holy at Lionsgate," Palen said. "And I feel really strongly you don't cry wolf with stuff like that, I think it's important for people to know we think it lives up to that standard.... We've been in the position before where we could have, and we chose not to."

For all the blood and gore that is in "The Descent," many of the film's biggest jump-out-of-your-seat moments come from more classical suspense tactics. Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, carefully employed a strategy whereby the only lighting on screen comes from something the women have carried into the cave (headlamps, flashlights or glow sticks) or fires they start. Much of the screen is often pitch-black, engaging the primal fear of being scared of the dark.

As well, Marshall employed a fairly basic tactic to get the biggest reaction from his heroine adventurers when they first confront one of the monsters they will soon engage in battle -- he didn't allow the actresses to see the "crawler" costumes until cameras were rolling for the scene.

Marshall is pleased with the way the film walks a line between suspense and gore, because he used one to push the other.

"As a fan, I love both kinds. I don't come from the school of 'It must be gory.' In the context of this film the gore seemed necessary to the way the story progressed. I needed the supernatural element to take it to a new place. I couldn't sustain it as a horror film just having small spaces or fear of heights. If I made the film without any gore, it would have burned itself out."

The film was released in the U.K. last summer and has already opened in territories all over the world. For the U.S. release the ending of the film has been changed, and a brief coda has been excised.

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The end game

IN the name of remaining spoiler-free, the details of the changes will be elided here. The original ending was unapologetically bleak and hopeless, and although the new ending is perhaps more ambiguous, it is not exactly more upbeat. The change has, perhaps not surprisingly, generated a fair amount of chatter on the Internet.

Palen says the decision was mutual between the company and Marshall.

"There's no doing anything like that without the blessing and the partnership of the director. We showed the movie to research audiences and found out making that subtle difference to the ending made a huge difference in terms of playability, people leaving the theater saying, 'You have got to see this movie.' So with the support of the director, it really did make a big difference to our market."

For his part, Marshall says the ending on the U.S. version is a decision he had toyed with for the original release anyway.

"That was something we tried in the U.K. when we were cutting the film. I shot the whole thing according to the script and tried to make the ending work well, and at one point I suggested ending sooner, but we decided to stick with the script. When the U.S. release came, I thought, 'Let's try the other ending.' The U.K. ending really divided audiences, so I felt we had nothing to lose."

The first poster put out by Lionsgate featured an image inspired by a painting by Salvador Dali, later enacted in a photograph by Philippe Halsman, in which naked women form into the shape of a skull. The image was also used as a component of the one-sheet for "The Silence of the Lambs," where the skull appeared on the back of a moth.

The image is evocative, but Palen admitted it was a risky way to jockey for position in a crowded release schedule.

"I did spot checks when it first went up in theaters and it is a one-sheet that captures people's attention. I've seen people standing in front of it noticing the finer details. If there's 25 posters in the multiplex and one forces people to stop and say 'What is that?' you're sort of halfway there."

For a filmmaker like Marshall, the opportunity to crack into the U.S. horror market in the hands of the proven Lionsgate team is quite an opportunity -- though even he finds that poster a bit baffling.

"Lionsgate have totally handled the U.S. marketing," he said. "They know their stuff. I don't know what U.S. audiences are like, and it would be arrogant of me to presume to know that. They came up with the image and I recognized it from the 'Silence of the Lambs' poster. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. It's a striking image, but I'm not sure what audiences are taking from it, what it says about the film. I don't know what Dali has got to do with 'The Descent,' but whatever works."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Thrills! Chills! The films that go bump in the night

Only time will tell if "The Descent" has what it takes to join this club. Here is an unscientific and nondefinitive list (in no particular order) of 10 of the greatest suspense/horror films of all time. Not necessarily the goriest or most gonzo, these are films that sank into the viewer's psyche -- and stayed there.

The Shining

1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick

This icy, cerebral adaptation of Stephen King's novel is full of indelible, disquieting imagery. The two girls. The elevator. The tricycle. All work and no play. Here's Johnny. Yikes.

The Exorcist

1973, William Friedkin

At the time of its release, Time magazine referred to the film as "vile and brutalizing." Like that's a bad thing.

Halloween

1978, John Carpenter

The definitive film for the creepiest of holidays.

The Silence of the Lambs

1991, Jonathan Demme

With an armload of Academy Awards, this is one of the classiest, most-lauded fright fests of all time.

28 Days Later

2002, Danny Boyle

Shot on digital video, this dystopian vision of an apocalyptic virus that turns people into cannibal zombies is so startling in large part for feeling all too real.

Ringu

1998, Hideo Nakata

The film tells the story of an evil videotape, so watching this movie at home becomes all the more meta and freaky. Remade in the U.S. as 2002's "The Ring."

Psycho

1960, Alfred Hitchcock

No listing of horror/suspense films would be complete without an entry from Hitchcock. This one has the legendary shower scene, so here

it is.

Jaws

1975, Steven Spielberg

What "Psycho" did for showers, "Jaws" did for a day at the beach.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

1974, Tobe Hooper

Cheap, grubby and out-of-control, the original "Texas Chainsaw" both defines and entirely supersedes the very notion of the exploitation picture.

Alien

1979, Ridley Scott

The legendary line from the film's poster -- "In space no one can hear you scream" -- pretty much sums it up.

HONORABLE MENTION

The Wicker Man

1973, Robin Hardy

Spooky, unsettling and seriously creepy, this story of a secret pagan society is worth checking out before the upcoming remake hits theaters.

Profondo Rosso

("Deep Red")

1975, Dario Argento

One of the best examples of the Italian "giallo" thriller, Argento's film is part slasher, part mystery -- and all style.

Rosemary's Baby

1968, Roman Polanski

Spellbinding and macabre, the film boasts a phenomenal cast, all of whom are pitch-perfect in capturing the way everyday fears and paranoia might actually warn of something bigger.

Audition

1999, Takashi Miike

Exceedingly prolific Japanese psychotronic filmmaker Miike turns out a surprisingly elegant examination of male-female relations that builds to a walloping climax.

The Omen

1976, Richard Donner

A film that shouldn't be as compelling and memorable as it is, yet -- as if someone made a deal with the devil -- it turns out to be jarring and unforgettable.

-- M.O.

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