Watching a well made horror film can feel like being a lab rat tied to a cattle prod. All of a sudden, you're given a shock and eventually you learn the pattern by which to expect the shock and you steel for it. But by then, the storyteller has changed tactics and shocks you in a different way.

Neil Marshall's The Descent is an effective and brilliantly crafted example of this kind of film and a huge improvement on his lacklustre Dog Soldiers. It is one of those economic, well constructed shockers that'll probably have a lucrative run.

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You know the plot almost before you're told. Six people take a trip, exploring caves, out in the middle of nowhere. By reel three, the film has become a creature feature, as they are picked off one by one by a stealthy hunter. Some semblance of originality is assumed, largely due to the all-female cast - the only bloke suffers a fate early on that would make Paul Verhoeven cackle - and the ideas afforded by the agreeably high concept setting. The women do all right, although the script doesn't offer anything more than token characterisations and without character, we can only empathise so far.

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) lost her husband and child a year earlier in a horrific road accident after white water rafting. Her friends invite her to the Appalachian Mountains to enjoy a spot of adventuring - exploring caves. The six women are established at a night stay in an isolated cabin, chugging back a half dozen beers each. Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), the self-appointed leader - cast from the mould of Ellen Ripley - decides to ignore the route set out in the guidebook and leads the group into uncharted caves.

They go deeper and deeper underground, with cave-ins making rescue impossible, completing the classical haunted house structure. We're drawn in by the setting and the challenges and Marshall does not make the mistake of diluting the intensity with cheap humour. Indeed, the blinding white sequence, where Sarah suffers from claustrophobia when crawling through a tunnel and Juno tries to calm her down, channels our own believable fears. The scene's surprising craft sets our nerves ablaze.

Marshall's stunning reveal of his creatures is the first time in years I have screamed out loud in a cinema - brilliant, unexpected, original and magnificently timed. After this, the film takes on an Aliens flavour, with the Crawler creatures reminding us of the Reapers from Blade II and Gollum. The surprise scatters the girls throughout the maze of caverns and then things take a different tone. Fans of the genre will recognise the use of camera to mask off-screen horrors and there's always the incisive fear of the dark playing well on the audience.

The prosthetics are exceptional, especially the Crawlers and the gore effects. The film earns its 18 rating by cheerfully exploiting Touching The Void-style injuries, pick axes, bodily dismemberment and geysers of blood - there's another squirm-inducing Evil Dead reference, too.

The internal struggles of the group are hopelessly dramatised, reading off like the plot mechanisms that they are. You can sense that Marshall doesn't want to let the audience off the hook at the end, as the genre dictates, but the final moments use a bottom drawer cliche to underwrite 10 minutes of development and leaves an unpleasant taste with a somewhat less than satisfying payoff.

The Descent is effective enough, however, and I strongly recommend it to fans of the genre and those who want the worst kind of uncompromising nightmares.

Reviewed on: 08 Jul 2005
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Six girls on a caving expedition find they are not alone in the dark.
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Read more The Descent reviews:

The Remote Viewer *****
Kotleta ****1/2

Director: Neil Marshall

Writer: Neil Marshall

Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Molly Kayll, Alex Reid, Craig Conway, Saskia Mulder, Oliver Milburn, Stephen Lamb

Year: 2005

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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If you like this, try:

Aliens
Dog Soldiers
Wolf Creek