Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Neil Marshall, "The Descent" (2005).

If you have ever seen Dog Soldiers, the action-horror flick released in 2002, then you know that English director Neil Marshall understands what true terror consists of. In that movie, a squad of national guardsmen encounter strange and violent beasts that hearken back to the tales of medieval werewolves. However, these monsters were created by modern-day man in order to serve as almost indestructible soldiers on the battlefield. Like most weapons devised by warmongers, they present an indiscriminate danger to people regardless of whether their targets are the enemy or merely civilians. The high speed camera work and fast-paced editing made watching Dog Soldiers an incredibly tense experience. There is an increasing audience for such unrelenting cinema among contemporary horror aficionados. For many folks the movie established Marshall as someone to watch.

Although he has been lumped in with other current directors (Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja, James Wan, etc.) who have been credited with bringing about a renaissance in horror, Marshall's work doesn't quite have the torture-porn component evident in the films of (what's being referred to) as the "Splat Pack". He certainly knows his way around a bit of gore, but he demonstrates more understanding of the subtleties of film making that can make the elements that are unseen even more frightening than what is thrown in the audience's collective face. Marshall's latest film, The Descent (2005), is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

The Descent follows a group of adventure-loving women, and their decision to go spelunking in an uncharted cave system. The six young lasses, all of which are very pretty in their own unique physical ways, are connected through their associations to lead characters Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). The latter has recently lost her husband and child in a gruesome car accident, and she is attempting to use a strenuous outdoor challenge to move on emotionally. Juno is the main instigator of the trip, and presents a fiercely strong-willed and authoritative presence. She also harbors a deep secret that could potentially split the cohesion of the group. Their entrance into the cave itself, along with the subsequent events, demonstrates that Juno's confident presence may mask deeper insecurities and personality flaws not immediately evident.

The psychological undercurrents of the principals aren't particularly unique from those we've seen in other horror films, but they are convincing enough to keep us engaged, and make us empathetic about the characters' fates. Ultimately it's not the depth of characterization that makes a Neil Marshall movie compelling. It's his exceptional skill in creating an atmosphere and mood of extreme anxiety that keeps us interested. The cinematography of The Descent exacerbates the natural feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that most normal human beings have while crawling through caves on their stomachs. I know these reactions personally because I've been caving. Getting stuck between immovable rocks when you are a mile beneath the earth's surface, and facing the possibility of losing the battery power of whatever illumination device you carried in with you, is frightening in a way very little else could be.

Add a pack of humanoid cave-dwelling mutants to the ordinary terrors of spelunking, and you now have one of the worst nightmares that I can imagine. You have to give credit to Marshall- his monsters are notoriously cringe-inducing, yet have the merest hint of credibility that suggests that you might actually run into them in an oddly parallel universe. He makes great use of the technique of limited exposure to their horror, as the first three quarters of the movie progresses. The protagonists become vaguely aware of their presence- just enough so that they could either be a foreboding reality or just figments of the imagination. And Marshall has the good sense to film these creatures in the darkness, so that you can't get desensitized to them. Even the sequences of extreme violence are shot in an impressionistic manner, so that you aren't quite sure how deadly they might turn out to be. That adds an element of realism to the proceedings because in the flurry of a sudden struggle in the darkness you wouldn't have a clear impression of what was happening to you.

One aspect of The Descent that has been widely commented on is the way it's concluded. Without spoiling the fun, I have to mention that there is just enough ambiguity included to make the viewer second guess his/her perceptions. I think that's perfectly appropriate in a story that concerns itself with an exploration into the deepest parts of its main characters' psyches. The entire setting encapsulates an obvious metaphor that is ignored only at the expense of the viewer's understanding of the events on-screen.

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