Horror review: The Descent

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, AUG. 10, 2006

A few weeks ago, we went camping at a lake near Powell River, and by camping I mean sleeping in a camper. I chose to crash at the very back of the rig, against the wall in the little bunk above the truck cab. Maybe it was the mixture of hot dogs, Pilsner, and smores, but I woke up in the middle of the night with a freaky feeling. I felt trapped and had to get out of that cubbyhole quick. It was the first time in my life that I’ve experienced claustrophobia, and it wasn’t pretty.

The uncomfortable vibe returned last weekend, even in the spacious atmosphere of SilverCity Metropolis. It came while watching The Descent‘s six thrill-seeking girlfriends, on a weekend caving expedition in the Appalachians, squeeze themselves between tiny passageways of water and rock. Writer-director Neil Marshall, who’d previously impressed genre fans with his 2002 soldiers-versus-werewolves saga, Dog Soldiers, does a brilliant job of preying on people’s natural fear of physical confinement.

The Descent is a regular Das Boot for the horror crowd.

Mind you, the Second World War German U-boat crew of that film only had Axis torpedoes to worry about. Here, the six chicks run into a race of humanoid creatures with faces that resemble the batlike vampire from Salem’s Lot but who have much nastier dispositions. These blind but ferocious beings like nothing more than to rip open the tender necks and torsos of underground adventurers, but they find worthy opponents in this gaggle of adrenaline junkies, which include a blond Brit (Shauna Macdonald) who’s already survived the worst hell a wife and mother could endure.

The Descent is from Maple Pictures, the take-no-prisoners studio responsible for such gruesome terror titles as High Tension, the Saw films, and the ultra-disgusting torture epic, Hostel. So it goes without saying that the blood in this movie flows like an underground river; at one point, characters are actually submerged in it.

But the most disturbing scenes don’t involve the subterranean beasties getting their milky-white skulls impaled by climbing tools or their gooey eye sockets skewered by female fingers. Most of the audience’s squeals and squirms are reserved for the sight of a severely broken leg, the type that occurs on the world’s roadways and sports fields every single day.

It’s this skillful juxtaposition of the unreal and the common–along with believable performances, sharp editing, and crafty suspense–that makes The Descent a big winner. Although I wouldn’t quite agree with the joblo.com writer who claims it’s “the best horror-thriller since Alien”, I dare say that it’s in the running with The Hills Have Eyes as top horror flick of the year.

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