Descent, The

The Descent (18)

Some filmmakers know their subject matter so thoroughly that one approaches their work with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation: enthusiasm for what one hopes they will deliver, and trepidation in case they fail to live up to expectation.

Thus it was with The Descent, Neil Marshall’s thrilling, chilling follow-up to his debut hit Dog Soldiers, in which an all-female group of pot-holers find more than they bargain for in the depths of an Appalachian cave system.

I needn’t have worried. He may have only two films under his belt but Marshall, still only 35, is solidly in the vanguard of a 21st century Brit horror revival.

Marshall’s rock-chick flick boasts an eye for character from the very beginning, as doting mum Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) suffers a devastating personal tragedy.

Twelve months later she’s part of a team of fellow extreme sports enthusiasts led by her pal Juno (Natalie Mendoza). Their goal: to scramble through an ancient series of caves. Before they leave the sextet poses for a group photo – a clear giveaway that some, if not all, of them won’t be coming back.

And so it goes. Leaving behind the idyllic forest, river and gorge they descend into darkness and damp, only to get lost in the previously uncharted caves.

Things take a mysterious turn when Sarah claims to see something lurking in the darkness – something that chatters and skitters, something with translucent skin. Something that might once have been human.

But when their exit is blocked and one of the girls is badly injured looking for another way out, they become easy prey for the hideous things that have been observing and stalking them. Things with translucent skin and jagged teeth. Things with a hunger for human flesh…

It doesn’t take long for The Descent to identify itself. This is a terrific throwback to films like Gary Sherman’s Death Line from 1972 and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London – gleefully gory and OTT shockers in which the body count rises with every scream and shriek on screen.

What sets it apart from other modern gorefests like Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever or Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn (which it vaguely resembles) is Marshall’s devotion to scaring the bejeesus out of his audience. Consequently The Descent is packed with shocks and jolts while simultaneously playing on long-suppressed fears – of the dark, of claustrophobic spaces and of the thing that we are convinced lives under the bed.

Slickly done with bags of gory action, rivers of blood and some intricately choreographed punch-ups between the would-be victims and the creatures (Marshall christens them ‘Crawlers’) led by rising British actor Craig Conway, The Descent reveals itself to be the perfect follow-up to Dog Soldiers.

In the Crawlers – blind, albino troglodytes that resemble humans but which have the table manners of a tribe of particularly messy cannibals – Marshall has fashioned a new breed of monster that seamlessly fits into the annals of animalistic humanoid killers.

The trick, of course, is in not following the hackneyed route of most horror films and earmarking those destined for the chop. Consequently Marshall plays with emotions far more than some directors, building up our hopes and fears and THEN offering up his sacrificial lambs. It’s brutal and bloody and brilliantly staged, just like a good horror story should be.

Just one thing: don’t eat right before you watch it…

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