DVD Pick: The Descent

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By Matt Brunson

THE DESCENT (2006)

***1/2

DIRECTED BY Neil Marshall

STARS Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza

With rare exception, Hollywood has long lost its ability to create memorable or meaningful horror flicks — look no further than the recent releases My Soul to Take and Case 39 for glaring evidence. But with Halloween just around the corner, those interested in checking out a modern-day monster movie would be well-advised to rent The Descent, a terror tale so accomplished that it made my 10 Best list for 2006.

The central character is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), a Scottish woman who, as the picture opens, suffers a terrible loss. Cut to a year later, when two of Sarah's close friends, the easygoing Beth (Alex Reid) and the competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza), talk their fellow outdoor enthusiast into tagging along on a spelunking expedition deep in the Appalachian mountains. They're joined by three other women — Juno's feisty protégée Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring) — and together the sextet embark on an adventure that they hope will not only produce the desired sense of merriment but also allow Sarah to move past her recent tragedy, even if only temporarily.

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Unfortunately, they pick the wrong cave. As they move deeper into the earth's bowels, they experience a major setback as a portion of the cave behind them collapses, making a retreat impossible. Instead, they're forced to search for an alternate escape route, a proposition that becomes even more terrifying once Sarah sees that they're not alone down there in the dark. Initially blowing off her sightings as the hallucinations of a traumatized woman, the other members of the team soon realize that this cave is populated by (as another movie called them) CHUD. Incidentally, that stands for cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. And they come bearing sharp teeth. And huge appetites.

Taking into account a budget that's peanuts compared to what Hollywood filmmakers spend on similar projects, The Descent might be a "B" movie, but it sure as hell doesn't look like one. The picture derives plenty of mileage out of its superb use of the darkness — during the first half, British writer-director Neil Marshall apes directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Jacques Tourneur by using lighting schemes and shadow play to maximize the suspense. Once the cave critters (who look like Gollum's cousins) show up, the film turns into an Evil Dead-like orgy of gore. It's during this fast and furious section when Marshall allows his movie-buff side to take over, offering homages to Carrie, Deliverance, Alien/Aliens and, if I'm not mistaken, even Apocalypse Now. It leads to an ending that disturbs on more than one level (the U.S. distributor lopped off the original — and superior — finale during the movie’s theatrical run, but fortunately the DVD contains the full international cut).

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The Descent is so expertly made that it more than holds its own as a full-throttle horror flick, yet it's Marshall's decision to provide it with a psychological bent that puts it firmly over the top. Guilt — or, more specifically, survivor's guilt — is rarely addressed in movies of this kind, yet from its opening tragedy to a shocking incident that occurs halfway through the film (you won't see this coming), the film imbues its female protagonists with messy moral dilemmas that allow them to alternate between heroine and villain, survivor and victim, wallflower and warrior. In fact, there's so much baggage attached to two members of the group that we occasionally forget the other, more immediate menace on hand. But then the teeth start gnashing and the blood starts flowing, and in an instant, we remember all too well.

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