“I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider.” —Alex Reid, The Descent

If John Carpenter hadn’t already used the title In The Mouth Of Madness, it would have been a perfectly fine (if a tad on-the-nose) descriptor of avowed Carpenter fan Neil Marshall’s terrific horror film The Descent. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, or a cave just a cave, but there’s no mistaking the giant maw on the Appalachian floor in Marshall’s film for any ol’ spelunking challenge, something on par with the Class V whitewater rapids in the opening sequence. In movies and TV, we’re accustomed to caves being neat little doorways carved out on hills and mountainsides, but the one in The Descent, appearing first in a chilling overhead shot, is more like a black hole, swallowing light and whatever foolish creature stumbles into it. It’s also, of course, a honking metaphor for the kind of despair from which few humans are capable of emerging.

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But metaphors are for the birds, at least if you’re Lionsgate, which lopped off Marshall’s original ending—which I’ll discuss later—and kept the emphasis on the film as pure visceral entertainment. (And one that gives viewers at least a small sigh of relief after it’s over.) As a piece of horror craftsmanship, there were few films in the ’00s that maintained such a high level intensity while also delivering shock after shock after shock. Usually it’s one or the other: Horror films are either a slow-burn of carefully crafted tension with mostly deferred release (see The House Of The Devil or the underrated The Strangers) or, more commonly, a cavalcade of shock effects designed to jolt viewers out of their seats every 10 or 15 minutes. (And even the bad ones usually succeed in the latter, since those jolts are uncontrollable reaction.) Marshall doesn’t have an especially distinctive style, but he’s made a hell of a hybrid, a movie that understands the old-fashioned values of dramatic table-setting, subtle plays of light, and well-employed off-screen space—yet also grabs the audience by the lapels and yanks them around at every opportunity.

Truth be told, some of the table-setting at the beginning is clunkily handled. Marshall needs to establish a lot of information quickly in order to get his female adventurers to the woods, and he sacrifices nuance for speed. Several items have to be ticked off the checklist: The women have to be thrill-seekers, so off they go down the rapids; an affair between the heroine’s husband and her aggressive friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has to be suggested, which is done via an awkward look; and the heroine’s husband and daughter have to perish in a car accident, which is done via the sort of tasteless impalement you’d expect from a Final Destination movie. After the rough start, Marshall rights the film in the aftermath of the accident, when the widow Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) regains consciousness in the hospital and her grief starts manifesting itself as hallucination.

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There’s a reason the title card arrives at the end of hospital sequence: Sarah has already made her descent into the hole before she even gets to Appalachia. One year later, her friends go down with her. Hooking up in what looks like Deliverance country—cue the banjo in the score and park signage riddled with bullet holes—Sarah, Juno, and four others huddle in a cabin the night before their fateful spelunking adventure. Rather than waste time filling in back stories and subplots for every one, Marshall is more concerned with establishing the general dynamic of the group, which is built on friendship and trust, but defers heavily to the will of one person, Juno, who violates that trust. Juno does some terrible things in The Descent: She’s had an affair with Sarah’s late husband, leads her friends to an unexplored and unsafe cave system without a map and without notifying the authorities of the mission, and accidentally jams a serrated raven axe into her friend’s neck. But to his immense credit, Marshall doesn’t make a cardboard villain out of her; Juno may get what’s coming to her, but she acts more out of selfishness than malice, and it’s hard not to feel guiltily awed by her strength in tough situations.

The Descent is a monster movie, but the monsters don’t show up until 48 minutes into it. To say it could work quite well without the addition of creepily evolved, half-human/half-bat creatures is something of a backhanded compliment: After all, why add mayhem and gore to the equation when the caving misadventures are suffused with enough tension as it is? I’m unsympathetic to that point of view—which was voiced mainly by critics with little stomach for splatter—but Marshall does plenty to make the conditions of an expedition gone wrong seem consistent with a dread-choked horror film. After awing us with the cave’s immensity—the initial rappel to the bottom is 500 feet if it’s an inch—Marshall then proceeds to squeeze his characters through a series of suffocating catacombs that would be impossible to traverse if the women weren’t so fit. And even then, the passageways are full of loose rock that probably hasn’t been disturbed in decades, if ever.

By the time the beasties show up, the following things have happened: The cave has collapsed behind them, closing off their only certain passage back to the surface. Juno has been exposed as not having a map and not alerting any potential rescuers to their plans. One woman has shattered her anklebone and another has suffered a rope burn that cuts about an inch into her palm. And the chances for just surviving the ordeal hinge on the dumb fortune of finding another way out of the depths. So into this metaphorical pit of despair, when all hope seems lost, Marshall adds a pack of ravenous, omnivorous monsters who call it home. It’s overkill of the best imaginable sort.

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Marshall's rigorous visual strategy was to restrict the light sources only to what the characters had on hand—stuff like helmet lamps, glowsticks, flares, makeshift torches, and the “infrared” feature on a camcorder. Naturally, that means a great reliance on sound and off-screen space to coax the audience into filling in those pitch-black areas with the greatest menace their minds can conjure. Though not as aesthetically severe as The Blair Witch Project, the film does have the same padding-in-the-dark quality. It’s frightening on a primal level, just to be down there in that claustrophobic space, with no clear exit and no clear sense of the scope of the danger. And this is before the creatures’ harrowing click-click-click sound floods the soundtrack.

The money shot in The Descent—Sarah emerging from a pool of blood, as if it were a baptism—is lifted from Apocalypse Now (and Carrie, to an extent), when Martin Sheen’s Willard surfaced from the murky depths with a look of steely determination. The parallels are unmistakable: The Descent follows Sarah’s own journey into the heart of darkness, a journey that begins with her already damaged and ends with her yielding to madness, even calcified by it. (It’s also no mistake that Marshall tips his hat to The Shining, which has virtually the same arc.) Though it’s tempting simply to admire her strength in the face of terror, betrayal, and death—her cold-blooded revenge on Juno belongs in the annals of badassery— her “descent” is not redemptive, but the opposite.

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Which brings us to the ending: In the American version, Sarah escapes the caverns, makes her way to the car, and, after a close call with an oncoming truck (flashes of a Wages Of Fear-style ironic ending there), appears to survive the ordeal. In the original cut, we see that her survival was another hallucination and she’s back in the cave, stuck with her memories and surrounded by demons on all sides. To a degree, you can see where Lionsgate was coming from in asking for another option: She’s been through a lot, she’s battled her way through impossible adversity, and she deserves a fucking break. Metaphors for madness are one thing; satisfying an audience is another. Yet Marshall’s ending satisfies a course he set out from the beginning, when Sarah comes to after the accident. Despite her resilience and fight, some traumas drag you too far down in the hole.

Coming Up: 
May 13: Mr. Brooks
May 27: Sátántangó (swapped with movie above; need more time on this one)
June 10: Starship Troopers