Women Spelunkers Find Out What’s In The Cave

Maui Time | July 29, 2006
Proto-Feminist Horror

Women Spelunkers Find Out What’s In The Cave

The Descent (Three Stars)

By Cole Smithey (757 words)

Traumatizing terror serves as the ultimate right to passage for surviving the horrors of the real world in British writer/director Neil Marshall’s (“Dog Soldiers”) gory and cathartic horror film about a group of six women adventurers on a doomed spelunking journey. After years of annual adventure trips with her two fellow female daredevils Juno and Beth, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and daughter in a horrifying car accident. One-year later Sarah’s friends arrange a caving expedition, with the addition of three more female adventurers, deep in the Appalachian Mountains to help break Sarah out of her depression via a literal form of submersion therapy. The group leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza - “Moulin Rouge”) plans the excursion to be especially challenging by surreptitiously choosing a previously unexplored cave for the six women to test the limits of their fears. Juno’s ambitious deceit backfires when the group is trapped by a rockslide that blocks their exit. Escaping the claustrophobic confines of the vast cave becomes more desperate when a clan of blind flesh-eating creatures stalk the women.

“The Descent” succeeds thoroughly as a horror film, based on the filmmakers’ diligent attention to fundamental genre elements. The first half of the story is spent exploring the background of the energetic women and their individual quirks that are soon pressed through a filter of survival instincts. Juno has an ego and athleticism that consumes everything in her path and drives her to create a hazardous situation where she can be canonized in the eyes of her peers if she acts as the heroine adventurer she believes herself to be. To Juno, Sarah is damaged goods and therefore a weak link that must be either galvanized or exhausted. Still, Sarah’s best friend/English teacher Beth (Alex Reid) is a powerful buffer to Juno, and she plays a pivotal part in giving a moral anchor to the rabid violence that gradually takes its toll on the group. Holly (Nora Jane Noone – “The Magdalene Sisters”) is a narcissistic punk-styled BASE jumper addicted to adrenaline. Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and her younger half-sister Sam (Myanna Burning) are tough Scandinavian beauties with professional climbing skills that prove essential in at least one especially harrowing cave-climbing sequence that puts a lump your in your throat.

The group arrives at their remote destination and abseils into a dauntingly deep pit that puts them within the confines of an objectively beautiful cave. Filmed largely at England’s famous Pinewood Studios, the production design team achieves a brilliant illusion of burying the women deep underground. Director of photography Sam McCurdy (“Dog Soldiers”) makes compelling use of tight camera compositions lit only by the women’s flashlights and flares. Composer David Julyan (“Memento”) adds considerably to the film’s foreboding atmosphere with an imperceptible musical score embellished with increasingly effective sound effects.

The heart of the movie relies on the believability of the chalky “crawler” monsters that inhabit the belly of the isolated cave waiting for humans or animals to feast on. Their jerky movements and white skin serve as convincing earmarks of credible alien subterranean creatures. The fact that the creatures are a society of males presents a subtext of sexual warfare that is played out within the womb-like interiors of the cave. Neil Marshall does the impossible when he bypasses the cliché constraints of the slasher-film genre with a violent plot twist that sucker-punches the audience with a bold shock of narrative creativity that takes several scenes to recover from. Marshall also creates suspenseful momentum by separating the women so that the audience is kept on pins and needles about the fate of each woman.

There is a not-so-subtle homage to Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” that sets up the crisis decision of the character chosen to carry the theme of the film into the inevitable light of day. As with the best of all horror movies, there’s a sense of relief and a renewed regard for life when the movie is over. Blood can be a purgative lubricant and Neil Marshall uses the crimson substance to enable a rebirth for his hard-bitten protagonist. There are textures of intensity in the fantasy elements of the story that Marshall finally links to the harsh mundane reality of a truck speeding down the highway in the film’s final tableau. The subtext traces physical, emotional and logical failures that correlate to how the capable female characters are braced against them. Only the most traumatized survive.

Rated R, 99 mins. (B)


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