To help Sarah (Shauna McDonald) recover from the shock of losing her husband and child in a brutal car accident, five of her thrill-seeking friends (including Nora-Jane Noone and Natalie Mendoza) organize a spelunking excursion in the remote Appalachian Mountains. What begins as a small diversion of harmless adventure soon becomes the fight of their lives as the women get lost, wounded, and discover that they are not alone down in the deep winding black of the caves.
The Euro export "The Decent" took its sweet time getting to American shores due to a similar production, "The Cave," that stunk up theaters last summer. Better late than never should be the motto applied here, since "Descent" is everything "The Cave" wasn't: edge-of-your-seat terrifying, atmospheric, and frightfully inventive.
The product of writer/director Neil Marshall, last seen with the cult werewolf hit "Dog Soldiers," "Descent" profits from his unswerving imagination for horror. "Descent" isn't always easy to classify; sometimes it's a gripping emotional drama about loss and deception, other times it's a chest-tightening survival thriller, but mostly it's an unstoppable monster flick with gushing fountains of blood and gore. Marshall has phenomenal control over the entire creation, and he seldom loses his drive in the feverish pursuit of thrills and chills. It's a sharp, exhilarating, refreshingly clean piece of direction.
Even if you take out the flesh-ripping monsters from the horror equation, "Descent" still has an abundance of petrifying visuals that will make you run screaming out of the theater. Marshall knows how to best utilize his cave locations, and he doesn't afford his characters a chance to breathe in their compact confines. Anyone with claustrophobia issues will chew their fingernails to the bone watching the women snake their way through impossibly snug cave passages, plunging them further and further into darkness, freak-out isolation, and teary despair. Using a stark pitch-black visual palette (the film is lit almost entirely with flashlights, night-vision camcorders, and miner helmets), Marshall finds the audience panic buttons right away and is relentless with his game plan for subterranean anxiety.
Of course, Marshall can't seem to say no to the cheap scare. "Descent" is a film spilling over with such unbearable tension and lush invention, it comes as a slap in the face that it also contains a hefty supply of "boo!" scares to keep the audience sufficiently lathered, and it's one of the few pockmarks on the film.
When the beasties do finally make their appearance, "Descent" quickly downshifts into a wicked bloodbath. Marshall makes use of heavily made-up actors, not CGI, to bring the nasties to life, and their predatory assault on the women is the stuff horror is made of. Marshall is smart to ratchet up the paranoia between the characters in this section of the film, with kills coming from all sorts of unexpected places, further exploring the absence of loyalty and the theme of mental instability. There are some incredibly crackerjack designed suspense and gore sequences in these red hot minutes, along with something even more impressive than well-oiled genre pandemonium: genuine unpredictability.
Regrettably, "Descent" is slavish to another criminal horror tradition: it has no idea how to end. Call it "High Tension Redux," but the mental game of chess that Marshall has been playing with the audience isn't cashed out with the kind of sledgehammer authority the rest of the production had been enjoying. The film eventually limps to the finish line, but the last minute fumbling doesn't dilute the overall experience of watching this cold-blooded, sensationally creative, and nightmarish horror film.
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