Thursday, April 15, 2010

Movies I Love: The Descent

Interplay announced today that their 1995 classic Descent will be coming to the Wii this fall. I have a lot of history with this game and its 1996 sequel so I was more than a little excited to hear this news. That's not what this post is about though, I just wanted to gush in print. When I went to to read about these amazing games I stumbled upon the review page for Neil Marshall's similarly named 2005 film, The Descent. I was so horrified to see its meager 71% rating that I decided to make this post about how much I adore this claustrophobic modern classic.

To give a quick summary, The Descent is the tale of six women who go on a caving expedition in North Carolina. Tensions within the group create an uncomfortable atmosphere as they descend into the Earth, and the situation only gets worse when they become trapped in an unexplored cave system. Their only chance is to go deeper into the unknown in hopes of finding a new way out...

That's all I'm going to say about the plot of The Descent because the less you know going-in the better. It exponentially improves your experience of the film if you go in fresh, and quite frankly even my brief synopsis is saying too much. Trust that the movie is great and if you like horror films you would be foolish not to check it out. Now I want to briefly (and vaguely) discuss why:

The Descent is a masterpiece in tension building. The film presents a set of real characters with compelling internal conflicts that slowly come to a head in a perilous situation. The setting echoes this rising tension with its ever-increasing hostility: the rock shift that traps the women underground adds to the overwhelming claustrophobia, and as they get deeper into the unknown cave system the darkness becomes more mysterious and terrifying. Marshall drags all of this out for over an hour before he lets all of his pieces come together in a gut-wrenching and unforgettable climax. The Descent's pacing gives you enough time to emotionally invest in the characters, and the ruthless conclusion will leave you stunned and horrified.

The film's largely-minimalistic cinematography is also one of its highlights. The Descent was shot almost entirely on sets composed of imitation rocks that combined to form whatever cave formations were called for by the script. They elegantly recreate the claustrophobia of being underground, but it is the use of darkness that really nails the atmosphere.The screen is often dominated by blackness that is at once beautiful and terrifying, and evokes our most primal fears of the unknown. I honestly cannot think of a better use of negative space in film. There are also some gorgeous shots of North Carolina in the film's opening scenes, and a few memorable point-of-view shots using the night-vision on a hand-held camera. The Descent is a terrifying visual monster that should be experienced on the big screen or in beautiful high definition.

Those are some of my reasons for adoring Neil Marshall's The Descent. It's an incredible little film that is horrifying for all the right reasons. I hope that you watch it and enjoy it as much as I have. Now I'll leave you with just a few things to be mindful of for your first viewing:

Above all else do your best not to know too much about the film going in. Even the information contained in this article is probably too much. I promise you'll enjoy it so much more if you go in as uninformed as possible. Additionally you should make sure that you watch the original British cut of the film. When they brought it over to America they fundamentally altered the ending in a way that severely limits its affect. Seriously, see the British version, it's a much better film. As far as I'm aware both versions are included with every release of the movie for home viewing, so the original shouldn't be hard to find.

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