Let's get one thing clear: The Descent is no Dog Soldiers. Yes, it's directed by Neil Marshall. Yes, it shares many of the same technicians. And yes, it's about six people fighting a terrible foe in a vast, unforgiving wilderness. But that's where the comparisons end.
Dog Soldiers is a blast, a ball, a riot, a fratpack horror-comedy to watch through the bottom of your pint glass. The Descent plays it straight, a concentrate-horror to watch through your fingers. It's a better movie, more confident and a good deal more crafted - the work of a director who's beginning to master the genre. It also sees Marshall join a growing band of filmmakers who are reacting to Hollywood's plastification of horror. Like Cabin Fever, Chainsaw, Switchblade Romance and the upcoming Wolf Creek, The Descent is a welcome return to the survival fear-flicks of the '70s, brutal and pure.
It opens with a superbly executed shock... and nothing happens till nearly an hour after that. Nothing that screams "horror movie" that is, Marshall giving us time to get to know his six female leads as they pitch up at Chattooga National Park for a reunion of extreme sports. Relationships are artfully sketched; psychological baggage is deftly rummaged through. All the players are strong, with Shauna Macdonald's traumatised Sarah just nicking it from Natalie Mendoza's alpha-female, Juno.
Yet through it all the coppery stench of menace curls the nostril hairs. Here, a deer skull hangs on a wall; there, a fiery sun slinks beneath the horizon. Now, it's Sarah trapped in a tunnel; then, it's Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) negotiating her torrid way across an abyss. And let's not forget the sphincter-twitching rope-burn sequence (as if we could), a visceral treat to rival the smoking palms/lift cable interface in Dario Argento's Cat O' Nine Tails.
Then, at last, come the `crawlers', mutated creatures who hunt by sound and feed on living flesh. Looking like the bastard offspring of Gollum and Nosferatu and sounding like an alley cat being throttled by children - screeches, growls, high-pitched giggles - they attack in blind (literally), cannibalistic fury, tearing flesh to release jets of blood. Okay, so their spindly frames and scuttling motions look anything but sinister in long shot, piteous even, but their misshapen, milky-eyed, rage-twisted faces sure as hell convince in close-up. Usually as their snaggle-teeth rip out a jugular.
It's here that Marshall revs into overdrive, our heroines dishing out a little primal fear of their own. Employing controlled, poetic slo-mo as he tilts the action from suspense to panic to outright terror, his final scenes are bold, brutal and brilliant. At last we have a British horror director to shout about. Make it to the end credits and your fractured mind will know this if nothing else.