The Descent (2005)

Memo to High Tension: there's a new "new wave" horror movie doing the rounds, and it's after your title. The rather more innocently named The Descent is perhaps the only genuinely terrifying movie I've seen in a long, long while; it may not be particularly psychological, but brainless teens running away from masked murderers this isn't: Neil Marshall's follow up to Dog Soldiers is a tense, gory slice of brilliance.

A group of twenty-something women, united by their love of adventure and extreme sports, set out on a caving expedition -- one year after the tragic death of the husband and daughter of one of their number, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). Initially, things are going well -- until an unexpected cave-in forces 'piece of work' Juno (Natalie Mendoza) to confess that they're not in the easy, well-documented cave system she'd promised they were going to. Instead, they're stranded, two miles underground, in a new system -- one no one has ever entered and returned alive from.

From the outset, The Descent builds tension expertly. The jump scenes aren't overdone; there's no MTV edit here, no false scares -- just slow burn terror. It's hard to breathe, watching the girls wriggle and squeeze their ways through narrow passages, battling time and the elements as the oppressive darkness threatens their mental state, forcing them to rely on one other and their own increasingly fragile bodies. When rebellious base-jumper Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) rushes on ahead only to plunge into a deep pit, the sound of her body hitting the ground is sickening, and the horror only increases as wannabe doctor Sam (MyAnna Buring) has to attempt to re-set her broken leg. The shots of bone protruding through blood-soaked flesh are enough to turn any stomach. Soon, though, the fact that they're lost, alone and trapped fades into the background as a more immediate threat emerges: the girls are being stalked. Hideous cave-dwelling creatures are circling them, driven by a lust for flesh -- with their disgusting pallor and rotted-looking bodies, these flesh eaters are almost zombie-like; except that they're faster, smarter, and are using sound to hunt.

Their fight for survival grows increasingly more difficult to watch as the girls realise they can't even rely on one another. The Descent offers virtually no opportunity to relax, as new disasters lurk around every corner; the easy humour of the first half an hour quickly evaporates as the crawlers close in, and the movie rushes towards its incredibly downbeat ending. Somehow, the cast of virtual unknowns makes the girls' predicament all the more real and immediate; frenetic camera-work functions perfectly to set the mood, and the all-encompassing darkness grows more and more threatening as the viewers as well as the girls strains to see into the corners. For a movie set miles underground, much of it is beautifully and skilfully lit, using torchlight, red flares or green glow-sticks, as well as one particularly inspired seen through the night-vision function of a video-camera.

My taste might veer far too far into the cheesy and ridiculous side of horror for most people to take my opinion seriously, but trust me on this one: turn the lights down low, make your friends shut the hell up, and enjoy -- The Descent is, near as all dammit, a perfect horror movie.

IMDB link

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