Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #41
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: July 8, 2005
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Box Office: $57,051,053
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Neil Marshall
Producer: Christian Colson
Screenplay: Neil Marshall
Special Effects: John Rafique, Nick Rideout
Cinematography: Sam McCurdy
Score: David Julyan
Editing: Jon Harris
Studio: Celador Films, Northmen Productions
Distributor: Pathé (Europe) Lionsgate (North America)
Stars: Shauna McDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll and Craig Conway as Scar
Suggested Audio Candy:
David Julyan The Descent
If you were to conduct a survey on a hundred people, asking them to reveal their biggest fear, then I would imagine a fair percentage would respond with being trapped in an enclosed space. Elevators are one of the chief offenders and, should one break down between floors, then you can distinguish any claustrophobes by the profuse sweating or uncontrollable convulsions. For some, the prospect of being cut-off without any means of escape would cause them to curl up into a ball akin to an alarmed hedgehog, praying desperately for the ground to open and swallow them up or to simply keel over on the spot.
Speaking of hedgehogs, evolution hasn’t been as kind to them as it has their porcupine cousins. While their shells are reinforced with rows of prickly needles to help fend off any opportunist predators, their spines are non-poisonous and therefore hardly provide the best rearguard. This leaves the fuzzy little critters banking on their wits alone to ensure their safe passage and we all know that they’re not known for their smarts. More often than not, their journey ends in the treads of a forty ton six axle articulated lorry but if you live by the road, chances are you will die by it too. Thankfully, humans are schooled on such pedestrian perils at an early age, but I don’t recall ever being taught about the dangers of spelunking. I believe that is why Neil Marshall’s The Descent resonated so strongly with audiences upon its release.
Marshall had already earned himself a fanbase with his well received werewolf-themed military exercise Dog Soldiers in 2002 making his next project a mouth-watering prospect for his new-found following. While he now had a much larger budget at his disposal, he wisely decided to keep his feet firmly rooted on terra firma and focus on replicating the sense of hopelessness that made it such a hit in the first place. While the isolated cabin had provided an adequately stifling setting, the Newcastle-born filmmaker would be required to dig a little deeper if he hoped to pull the welcome mat from the viewers feet second time out. That meant breaking out the pickaxes and getting down with the invertebrates.
Much like John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Descent benefits from its application of a certain winning dynamic. Same sex protagonists. I flag up The Thing, not to appear flippant or chauvinistic, but to point out the plain obvious that the addition of a female character would’ve created an unbalance and soundly compromised the overall experience. With all that oestrogen and testosterone hanging in the air, it would have been a formality that Palmer would have ended up date raping one of his female comrades and that would have spelt double trouble come the inevitable blood test. Consequently, they’d have all been dead by supper. It’s just unnecessary distraction. Marshall explores the same angle, only here the concept is flipped on its head and our leads are all of the female persuasion. This is just as appealing an experiment, moreover, given how women tend to integrate less successfully in same-sex situations, it makes for an even more thankless expedition.
Enter Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), and thrill seeking companions Beth (Alex Reid), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring), bidding to assist Sarah in coming to terms with the tragic death of her husband and daughter a year earlier. They set off deep into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains and attempt to locate its asshole, that being a network of underground caverns way below ground level. Despite encountering an elk’s carcass at the cave entrance with its throat torn clean out, they girls journey south as planned. Marshall ensures that their descent provides sufficient challenge as they’ll need to be on their A-game when he reveals what he has planned later on.
By refraining from letting his freaks off the leash until well into the second act and insisting that we get up close and personal with the dames as they burrow deeper, the impact is far more potent once it all goes Shelley Long. It is then that the ladies’ loyaties become severely tested and also the precise moment that the boat rocks. Over the course of 100 increasingly suffocating minutes, their loyalties will have been tested to the extreme, and the stronger of the species will have secured survival, albeit tentative. In the same manner in which Carpenter explored the most basic of human instincts, the lengths we will go to ensure our safe passage should all go awry, Marshall sets out to provide a parallel perspective through the heavily made-up eyes of a flock of female friends/foes.
After a handful of near-death experiences, they reach an enormous precipice, and it is here that they strike out in style, as we are cordially invited to learn the real reason these caves are generally avoided. While the tenants in question appear almost humanoid, they are also hairless and deformed with beady little peepers utterly devoid of warmth and encouragement. With mortified ladies forced into prioritizing, it swiftly becomes a frenetic race to the ground-level summit. Lines become blurred; allegiances are tested, and all these sinister crawlers are grinding their jaws and licking their gums. Had I mentioned their low center of gravity, the fact that their teeth resemble stalactites, or that their razor-sharp talons have never witnessed manicures? Bottom line, these guys would kick the shit out of Gollum.
The second half of The Descent reminds me of a water park aqua-flume as it whizzes past in a shot, offering precious little time to collect our thoughts or reflect on the unfortunate series of events transpiring. It is invigorating in the extreme, leaving the audience unaware of which way we are facing by the time we are spewed out at the other end. Marshall succeeds entirely by providing such an extensive guided tour through his twisting labyrinth of dank tunnels and tight crawlspaces, before cranking shit up to thirteen. Dog Soldiers may well have demonstrated the potential he possesses, but here he proves in no uncertain terms that it was no fluke. Disheartening as it has been that his later ventures have reeked of studio meddling and compromised vision, this film shows that he can damned well repeat his feat once he eventually arrives full circle.
For as much as The Descent witnesses Marshall at the height of his directorial prowess, it’s a team effort and a number of other factors assist in elevating the experience well above par. Director of photography Sam McCurdy shows both sides of his game, teasing our senses with wide open green expanses before making full use of the cavern’s close quarters, using light and shade to conceal and reveal in turn. The girls are tooled up with infra-red cameras, luminous green light-sticks, flares and torches, each highlighting any potential ambush points with every uncertain step they take. Another incalculable inclusion is the superior sound design. David Julyan’s grand orchestral score is put to stellar use, but notably never outstays its welcome. When required, the audio is stripped back and the cavern’s own ominous acoustic takes precedence. All of this ensures that we are left gasping come the inevitable showdown.
There were two significantly different endings to The Descent filmed and one is decidedly more satisfying than the other. In the theatrical cut that I viewed, Marshall elects to keep things bleak and uncompromising but an alternative conclusion is far more uplifting and, subsequently packs far less of a kidney punch. Let’s not get it twisted, I love me a happy ending like the next sap. I didn’t wish for Andie to get date-raped by Blane in the car park at the close of Pretty in Pink and neither did I pray for Largeman’s plane to nose-dive during take off as Garden State took its bow. It’s undeniably dandy when things work out as we’re left with a warm fuzzy feeling inside but far more gratifying in darker works such as this to feel despairing come the tail-end. This dastardly approach heightens our involvement, leaves a stubborn stain on our subconscious, and forces us bask in the glorious revulsion.
It would be fair to say that The Descent Part 2 largely failed in its quest to replicate the same feeling of consternation and I find it curious that Marshall chose to pass the baton onto first-time director Jon Harris and settle for an Executive Producer credit. To be fair, the sequel was up against it from the offset and, whilst significantly less triumphant than its predecessor, can’t be accused of not giving it the old college try. I’m sure that Marshall had his reasons for relinquishing control and, admittedly, it was always destined to be something of a one-time deal. To his eternal credit, something that I believe he doesn’t get enough of, he took his shot like the rising talent he clearly is and nobody can ever take that away from him. If nothing else, it convinced me to cross spelunking off my bucket list.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: If you are looking for deep gushing rivers of grue, then you’ll be pleased to learn that The Descent delivers precisely that. We’re talking literally gallons of deep red, complete with a smorgasbord of skulls and enough bone fragments to send Sinbad packing. Meanwhile, the injury detail depicted will cause many a weak stomach to somersault, with one particularly nauseating protruding shin bone enough to have us retching. No expense is spared in this department, while the design of the crawlers themselves is truly exceptional.
After revealing my delight at mean-spirited conclusions, I cannot help but ponder how other movies would have turned out had the directors vacated their sleeping quarters on the wrong side before the last day of shooting. Thus, I present you with ten alternative endings that would have thrown a cat amongst the pigeons.
L.A. Story – Sara returns to England to give things another try with ex-husband Roland, leaving Harris to contemplate his sad existence. Consequently, he turns to crystal meth to cheer him up, turning tricks to fund his addiction, and ultimately chokes on his own vomit in a dingy back alley.
Do The Right Thing – Once the riots subside, any racial tensions are resolved and the entire cast congregate in Sal’s famous Italian pizzeria to bust out an infectious Broadway number. Spike could’ve called it Do the White Thing.
The Sixth Sense – Dr. Malcolm Crowe wakes up and discovers it was all a dream.
I Spit On Your Grave – After searching high and low to no avail, Jennifer finally locates all four of her arch enemies gathered together round the campfire and…they molest her a second time. Working title: I Spit on Your Grave Twice.
Titanic – Rose holds Jack’s weary head under the icy water until he drowns, before floating back to rogue Cal Hockley, marrying him for his money and having no children.
Can’t Buy Me Love – As Cindy Mancini climbs aboard Ronald’s sit-on mower, her sneaker becomes lodged on the gas pedal causing our loveable pair to shoot off uncontrollably at top speed screaming in terror to a sped-up rendition of The Beatles’ rip-roaring classic.
Rocky IV – Balboa loses out to Drago on a unanimous points decision after twelve gruelling rounds, then rushes home to take it out on Adrienne, beating her to a bloodied pulp until she fatally hemorrhages.
Romeo & Juliet – Romeo gets his stomach pumped and makes a full recovery.
E.T. – Just as he prepares to soar off into space, our friendly extra terrestrial gets his quarterly phone bill through. Unable to pay the lofty premium, his spaceship is then repossessed by bailiffs and sold to the Critters instead.
The Shining – Realizing there’s a chill in the air, Jack thinks better of stalking Danny through the hedge maze, opting to leave his son to freeze to death outside. Meanwhile, he heads back inside the Overlook Motel and hacks Wendy up into iddy biddy pieces instead.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)