A bunch of young people go cave diving into an unknown cave, only to have that cave collapse behind them. But that's not all: there's something else down there with them. Something both terrifying and hungry. Who lives? Who dies?
Well, if you're watching 2005's THE CAVE, you really don't care, because that movie is yet another abysmal example of how far American Horror films have strayed off the mark. However, if you're watching Neil Marshall's amazing THE DESCENT (from the UK, incidentally), be prepared to care very much. And be prepared to truly, finally, see what so many other horror movies can hype: one of the best horror film in years.
The film begins with three friends enjoying a rafting vacation together when tragedy strikes lead Sarah, whose husband and daughter are killed in a car accident. A year later, still fragile from past events, she get together with her friends to go on a cave diving expedition. Group leader Juno, for reasons made clear later on, takes the group away from their original cave selection and to a new foreboding cave found deep in the forests of the Appalachians. A huge, gawping maw beckons them down, down, down...
The first half of the film, dealing with the initial descent, the (inevitable) collapse of the opening and the realization that Juno led them to an unknown, unexplored cave provides more than enough tension and drama to fill up an entire film. Marshall wisely uses this time to flesh everyone out and begin to set up the confrontations between the explorers. The darkness acts as a separate entity, and the few light sources - flares, matches, and a video camera equipped with night-vision add to the sense of dread purveying the film. The video camera in particular play a crucial role, setting up the terrifying second half. We look through the viewpoint of one of the women holding the camera as she scans her surroundings and sees...something else is in the cave with them.
From here on in THE DESCENT goes full throttle as the women fight to escape the cave with their lives. Throughout Marshall (who also wrote the movie) throws in visual references to some of the films that influenced him as a filmmaker - Jim Emerson in his excellent SCANNERS blog compares many of the shots side be side (check it out here). Using little in the way of special effects, the creatures are largely effective precisely because of how little you see them. This is a lesson exemplified by the best directors which seems to be largely forgotten in the past few years.
Although the focus cuts back and forth between the characters, it is definitely Sarah's story, and watching her attempts to escape and deal with events both past and present moves this out of simple b-horror schlock and elevates it into a mesmerizing character study. But that study never sacrifices the action or the gore, which is both hard and fast. This is apologetically an R-rated movie, and the freedom of the rating allows Marshall and the cast to explore every last bloody nook and cranny in the story.
Much has been theorized as to the nature of the ending. With the release of the original uncut version on DVD (which tacks on the final minute of film, cut from the US theatrical release), I don't see the debate ending any time soon. I will say that the ending seems right, and lends a new meaning to the title. Let's hope Neil Marshall continues to make horror of this caliber, and let's hope that American Horror listens...