Neil Marshall sure knows how to get your attention. Mere minutes into The Descent, he’ll have made you jump half out your seat, sent your popcorn cascading ceilingward and left nervous titters bubbling around the theatre. Here’s a man who truly, deeply, horribly knows his horror. Welding a fanboy mentality to a masterful grasp of genre-filmmaking, Marshall goes all-out to disturb, upset and downright terrify his audience for a relentless 100-odd minutes, pausing only occasionally to allow us the odd twitchy laugh or indulge in bit of visual-reference in-jokery (Aliens and Carrie are just two of the more obvious homaged movies).
The Geordie shockmeister first got our attention back in 2002 with his gruey, boisterous squaddies-versus-werewolves debut Dog Soldiers. Scrappy and shoestringy it may have been, but it marked Marshall out as a British talent to keep our beadies on. The Descent represents a logical progression. It’s bigger-budget (or, at least, it looks it), better-looking, far scarier and will, no doubt fling small-fish Marshall into a much bigger pond – one ringed with tinsel.
Much of The Descent’s success is due to the beautiful economy of the concept: six girls, one cave and a whole lotta pain. The subterranean setting is conducive to horror and Marshall grinds every last wince out of it. Even before the screams begin and the bones start snapping, the claustrophobia will get you, with the women elbowing and puffing their way through cheese-press tunnels, their hardhats scraping disconcertingly against stone, the rockdust snaking through the dank, stale air in the torchlight… And once we’re all down in the dark, we’re down there for the rest of the movie. There’s no respite, no moment to sit back and breathe easy.
Thankfully, Marshall’s inventive enough to make this work for, rather than against him. Some scenes are lit by the eerie crimson glow of a flare, others washed in the green of a glowstick, while in a few we can only see through the fuzzy, black-and-white nightsight of a camcorder. And when there’s no light at all, he lets his creepy sound-design do all the dirty work.
Naturally there’s far more to this than the vacation-gone-wrong set-up. For a start, there’s the strained character dynamics, played out effectively by the cast as Sarah’s (Macdonald) mental state becomes worryingly fragile, while Juno’s (Mendoza) ballsiness soon teeters into recklessness. Then, even worse there’s… Well, it’s probably best we don’t go there. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy. If, of course, being scared shitless is what you consider enjoyable.