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Issue #129 - May 2006

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Chums in the Dark

By Peter Wong

Horror films are not typical film festival fare. In most such films displaying as much blood and gore as is allowed by the running time usually takes precedence over effectively raising familiar psychological fears. Yet Neil Marshall’s new horror film The Descent was screened at the recent 49th San Francisco International Film Festival. What made the film special? Perhaps it was advance praise calling The Descent the horror film of the millennium. But it is more likely to have been SFIFF Executive Director Graham Leggat’s public recommendation. This man, who’s probably seen hundreds of films in his career, called the film one that spectacularly unsettled him. And The Descent does indeed live up to its praise.

Myanna Buring, Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, and Alex Reid play the members of a sextet of adventure travelers. During one such adventure vacation, the excursion is cut short by a devastating tragedy.

The film then jumps forward one year. The adventure travelers have reluctantly reunited to explore an Appalachian cave system. In theory, the spelunking expedition will act as a morale booster. As things turn out, regaining self-confidence turns out to be the least of the group’s problems.

Reviewing The Descent for American readers is an incredibly tricky business. Much of the film’s pleasures depend on keeping new viewers in the dark (ha ha) as much as possible. Yet many UK viewers have already seen this film. Online reviews have discussed The Descent at length. American viewers’ official chance to see The Descent won’t come until August 2006 at the earliest. But, at least in this review, plot spoilers will be avoided where possible.

The Descent shows Marshall improving on his work in his debut film Dog Soldiers. The camaraderie among the six main characters is laid out economically and without artificiality. There are no questionable plot sequences or over-extended moments. Also gone are characters with thick incomprehensible accents whose presence made viewing a chore with a bad theater sound system.

In addition, Marshall constantly reminds the viewer of the setting of his story. He may not offer obvious plot cues that the film takes place in a cave. But he does know how to keep a claustrophobic undercurrent running through the film.

Speaking of undercurrents, the justifiable homicide statutes now cover killing people who insist on making running commentary, and idiots who leave their cell phones on during a theatrical screening of The Descent. Yes, this is a cineaste joke. But the sentiment is very real. Neighbor distractions would definitely impair your enjoyment of Marshall’s film.

One of the factors that make The Descent enjoyable is the treatment of its women characters. Far too many horror films treat the presence of female characters as excuses for "friendly" displays of T & A. The women wear clothing that highlights their physical assets, or they appear partially or fully naked. None of this treatment happens here.

Equally importantly, the friends and adventurers are not invulnerable superwomen. They display intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage to match their circumstances. Setbacks do occur, but the reasons for their occurrence are something other than satisfying the demands of the plot.

A truly jaded viewer may fault The Descent for some degree of familiarity in its themes. Yet publication of The Stars My Destination did not discourage later writers from including teleportation in their stories. Marshall’s chief success in The Descent is to create a film whose atmosphere of dread and terror can survive repeat viewings. Once one has gotten over mentally jumping out of one’s seat, one can enjoy Marshall’s economical but logical story-telling.

American readers are urged to catch The Descent when Lion’s Gate Films releases it later this year. Watching the film will give viewers "I knew Neil Marshall’s work when" bragging rights before a Hollywood studio snaps him up to direct a mega-million dollar genre project. Then again, unless the director maintains a great degree of creative control or studio support, a Hollywood-originated Neil Marshall film will probably sport a crappy script, bad actors, butchered film editing, or some combination of the above.

When was the last time a horror film was nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo? This year, The Descent clearly deserves a spot on the 2007 final Hugo ballot.

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee