Six female friends meet on the remote Scottish Appalachiana mountain range for their annual adventure, an expedition into the deepest, darkest caves they can find. Led by Juno (Natalie Mendoza), an individual who seems obsessed with pushing the group to its limits, the women eventually find themselves deep inside the cavernous tunnels of the mountainside. A few hours into the expedition disaster befalls the six, when a section of the tunnel collapses and blocks their route. Subsequently group dynamics become strained as the ‘friends’ discover that Juno has led them into an unexplored section of caving, and, with their exit blocked, they are reluctantly obliged to press on, in the blind hope of discovering another way out.
Travelling through this inhospitable subterranean domain, they find themselves tested both physically and mentally by its unforgiving terrain. The actual interior sets used for the tunnels feature a variety of matte paintings as backdrops, which provide the viewer with a vague comprehension of the cavern’s scale. The paintings look a little tacky, but do so in a manner similar to, say, the tunnel sets in John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982), which lends the production a real ‘eighties’ feel, quite refreshing in this age of shiny, sharp and emotionally sterile CGI backdrops.
The women continue their campaign against the power of nature, but this soon takes a back seat to another battle they are forced to fight, against a race of fearless and evidently very hungry cave dwellers. These ‘Crawlers’ have lived in the depths for so long that they have adapted and evolved to exist in such a harsh nocturnal ecosystem, and thus are at the top of the food chain. When they appear onscreen the Crawlers look incredible, describable as similar to the goblins lurking in the mines of Moria in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2002) but a lot more twisted and evil looking. The creatures speed through the tunnels on all fours whilst searching for food, in a manner reminiscent of Gollum or perhaps even the Reapers from ‘Blade 2’ (2002).
As it dawns on the group that they are being stalked by these malevolent humanoid predators, their pretence of unity is utterly abandoned and this break down opens old wounds, particularly for Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who has recently recovered from the deaths of her entire family. She is shocked to learn that Juno had an affair with her late husband Paul (Oliver Millburn), and this revelation acts as a catalyst that spurs her into action. From this point, Sarah decides that the only way for her to survive and escape to the surface is to be as savage as the creatures hunting her, and to this end she goes completely ‘Ripley’ on any of the Crawlers she comes across.
Described by writer-director Neil Marshall as ‘Deliverance goes underground’, this film clearly represents a step forward for his career, highlighting in particular the difference that a decent budget can make for a talented filmmaker. His previous outing ‘Dog Soldiers’ (2002) was an excellent film, but its production values, and in particular the special effects, suffered from an obvious lack of funds, illustrated most clearly when the werewolves finally make their appearance. However, in a manner similar to Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead 2’ (1987), ‘The Descent’ highlights Marshall’s capabilities with a larger budget, resulting in a significant improvement in quality over his previous movie. The gore and special effects are first rate as skulls are crushed and people are ripped apart, the acting is good and, perhaps most importantly, the storyline flows, keeping the viewer involved with its occasional twists and turns. However, above all, any self respecting monster movie fan needs to check out the Crawlers, as they are quite simply the stars of the movie.
The last ten years or so have seen Marshall on a long and winding road, leading him from the editing booth in 1994 for the TV movie ‘Driven’ through to Luxembourg for the filming of ‘Dog Soldiers’ and now with ‘The Descent’ he has, quite literally, gone underground (Pitlochry exterior shots aside). The result is a claustrophobic, intense and very enjoyable horror flick. Finally, fans of Marshall’s work will notice that he once again finds roles for Craig Conway (the unfortunate author who choose the wrong place to camp in ‘Dog Soldiers’) and Les Simpson (Pvt. Terry Milburn in ‘Dog Soldiers’) and Marshall himself states that, “Craig and Les are my actors of choice in that they have been in every film I’ve ever made, in one way or another.” Here’s to seeing them on the big screen again in the near future then.