OCTOBER 5, 2007
Before I became "press", I used to go to a lot of free movie screenings via radio station/newspaper giveaways. They were usually pretty annoying, since the whole "free" aspect tended to bring in a lot of folks who ordinarily didn't go to the movies, they would be 'hosted' by DJs or whoever (in one amazing display of idiocy, a DJ tried to get the crowd pumped for World Trade Center. "Are you ready for World Trade Center??? WOOOOOO!" - actual quote. Astonishing.), and you had to wait in long lines and not even be guaranteed to get in. But one such screening that stuck out was for Neil Marshall's The Descent. On the way in, we got little penlights. At first we thought it was just a promotional giveaway, but once we got into the theater, we saw they were quite useful. In order to try to replicate the pitch black setting of the film, they shut all the house lights off (not dimmed - OFF) while everyone was trying to find their seats. It was a clusterfuck, but it was fun, and there was some damn good gropage.
The movie itself is a near masterpiece of modern horror. Marshall's previous film, Dog Soldiers, was a fun little movie, sort of Evil Dead with werewolves, but this was just a remarkably solid film. Deftly combining both a standard monster movie with a truly sad psychological story (one that was somewhat dampened with the US edit, which removed the film's final, haunting, depressing shot), it set the bar pretty goddamn high for any subgenre the movie belonged to.
The great thing about the movie is how scary it is before the damn monsters even show up. I legit yelped the first time I saw the film at a particular shock scare early on, and the scenes of the girls getting stuck in tiny passageways as they navigate the cave system are pretty terrifying as well. Plus, Marshall is a master of subtle reveals, giving the film enormous rewatchability (check out the scene right after the cave in, when Sarah is looking around with her flashlight - there's a monster's hand or something without a single musical sting or scream to accompany it). Like the best survival horror movies, there are nature elements as well as the monster/killer to worry about, and Marshall's script never lets one really overshadow the other.
Plus, it's gory as hell. Those cannibalistic humanoids that dwell under the ground (I wish they had a simple acronym to use to describe them) spray their innards everywhere when killed, and they have a knack for likewise killing the girls as gorily as possible. Again, Marshall succeeds in both areas - he's made a chilling psychological horror film, AND a splatter film, and whether you consider it one type of film or the other, it works just as well. I should note that some folks believe the monsters don't exist at all; that Sarah killed her friends herself. And while I don't buy into this theory, it certainly has some evidence to support it, and gives the film another level of interpretation. Can't say that about Captivity.
So are there ANY flaws? Well, maybe the film is TOO subtle for a modern audience. A good friend of mine totally missed that the Juno character was fucking Sarah's husband, and thus didn't really connect with the ending, as she felt it was needlessly cruel and unjustified. But is that really a flaw? It's more the fault of Marshall's peers for spelling everything out for us so often (ahem, Saw 3) that when someone actually respects audience intelligence, the effect is lost because everyone is used to shutting that intelligence off before they sit down in the theater (Note - this wasn't a problem for me. I am well versed in the cinematic language of "cheating whores").
I haven't gone through the DVD yet, though it has a nice collection of extras in theory. The R2 one has even more (plus DTS!) but given my limited time to actually watch the damn things lately, I probably won't import it. I WOULD like to have an HD version (it's currently on BluRay), since like 80% of every frame in the film is total blackness, I think it would look amazing and reveal more detail (in terms of shades of dark) than can be seen in a standard def one.
It was my pick for best horror film of 2006, and watching it again didn't make me reconsider that. The Descent is simply a great fucking movie, and if Doomsday turns out good, Marshall will officially be the only modern genre director I think will be revered in 20 or 30 years the way John Carpenter and Wes Craven are now.
What say you?