The Decent (2005): Still a Tight Fit

The Descent (2005): Still a Tight Fit

The Descent, written and directed by the brilliant Neil Marshall, was a revelation in 2005. It is begins with a shock to the system, or two, and rapidly turns into an exercise in claustrophobia. Watching it again tonight on DVD, I found it to still be a tight fit. One that manages to leave me feeling a tad panicky and breathless, despite having watched it numerous times over the years.

My daughter and I watched it initially and both of us were blown away by the mood and the many changes that Marshall manages to manufacture in the film. In terms of unique and “outside the box” horror, this talented maestro knocks it out of the metaphorical park. (The original viewing of this horror film was back in approximately 2007.)

(I will admit to being an unabashed fanboy of Marshall. This is, after all, the same man who brought us the wonderfully weird and and delightful Dog Soldiers, as well as my “go-to” sci-fi/thriller fix, Doomsday.)

Back to The Descent:  The ladies are an interesting bunch with Juno; (Natalie Mendoza) the one who seems to be guaranteed to be the “final girl,” Sarah; (Shauna Macdonald) whose mind is a myriad of mixed emotions and Beth; (Alex Reid) the observer who sets a certain chain of events in motion, heading up this ensemble effort. The dynamic between these three and its messy interlude, runs alongside the main plot, after it makes its appearance, and shows the true depth of this movie’s story.

Marshall allows us an “out,” if you will, early on in the film. The MyAnna Buring character talks of the dangers of Spelunking.  She mentions hallucinations, dehydration, and disorientation as just a few of the long list of problems that exploring deep under the earth can cause.  By the film’s end, it is all too easy to contemplate a scenario where Sarah has dreamed the whole thing up.

Juno’s affair with Sarah’s late husband, the blind and cannibalistic cave creatures, and the end battle between Juno and Sarah could all be a construct of a woman who still needs medication after the horrific death of her husband and child. Medication that she forgets to bring into the cave with her. Sarah does, after all, get stuck in that narrow and somewhat heart stopping passage between caves. Is it such a stretch to imagine that the poor woman remained trapped there and had an intense Bardo moment?

It is interesting to note that the entire film leaves one with a tight feeling in the chest, a certain breathlessness and a slight sense of panic. After that first “jump scare” (I still cannot follow a vehicle with a load of copper, or any type of, pipes in the back without an uneasy feeling that borders on paranoia.) to the final shot of Sarah’s apparent demise, the ride is incredibly tortuous and stressful. I am not, as a rule, claustrophobic. But Marshall’s offering, from start to finish, certainly puts me in that place.

Despite being over 15 years old, The Descent still manages to entertain and put the audience in a very uncomfortable place. It is available to watch, for free, on IMDB TV. If you have not had the opportunity to watch this, or for that matter, the other aforementioned Marshall films, I would highly recommend checking it/them out.

Howl (2015): Terror Courtesy British Rail (Review)

Poster for Howl

It is hard to find fault with the British horror film “Howl.”  It delivers some delicious terror courtesy of British Rail, or its imaginary equivalent,  and it has some familiar faces and names from the world of horror.

(The company logo appears to be an “A” and the only rail service that start with that letter is Arriva in Wales.  As not one passenger speaks with a Welsh accent and since there is no Eastborough in Wales, the company must be imaginary.)

Written by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler (both better known, somewhat amazingly, for children’s telly) and directed by Paul Hyett “Howl” hits all the right notes.   This was Hyett’s second film as director, the first being “The Seasoning House” which starred  Rosie Day and Sean Pertwee

Hyett’s directorial debut was a brilliant thriller where Pertwee was a baddy and Day won Best Actress for her role.  This second  feature from the director does not disappoint as it takes the myth of the werewolf, or a hybrid of the creature, and places it in the English countryside.

The plot deals with one of those tiny rail lines with about five cars that empties out the closer the train gets to its final destination.  The vehicle hits a deer and stalls out. The driver (Pertwee) gets out to check and dies; ripped to shreds by a werewolf.

Joe  (Ed Speleers) has been passed over for promotion and is bullied into doing a double shift for the Eastborough line.  When the driver (Pertwee) goes missing Joe is in charge of the reduced number of passengers and he tries to save everyone. 

Another actor from Hyett’s past also appears in “Howl;” the splendid Shauna Macdonald who was the main protagonist in both “The Descent” and The Descent 2. Paul was the makeup supervisor on both films.  

The film switches from a claustrophobic  setting to a more open one and back again.  The characters range from the snooty young teen who calls Joe a perv to the smarmy financial expert with a house in the country and a flat in the city.  The successful businessman is a snot and calls one young man on the train “ASBO boy.”

“Howl” is atmospheric and very English in its delivery.  There are no guns to fight the monsters who are attacking the train.  Weapons include a huge spanner (wrench) a fire axe and a crowbar.  There is a bit of the “stiff upper lip old chap” attitude combined with a sort of “MacGyver” (or even the “Dawn of the Dead” remake) ingenuity.

The creatures look very convincing and quite scary. They also appear to be practical mixed with a bit of CG and they work very well.

There are a few things that do not ring true.  The carriages are far too clean both inside and out. Another issue is the PA system, it is far too clear and concise with an adequate decibel level and no static. In other words everyone can hear each announcement clearly. Anyone who has ridden the rail system in England will know that reality is much different than what is shown here.

(At the risk of being really picayune, the “guard” did not punch a hole in the tickets either. Just saying.)

Small complaints aside, “Howl” works brilliantly.  This is what English directors do best. Make horror films that entertain and give a nod and a wink to the genre. Sean Pertwee appearing, and then dying before the film’s midway point, is almost horror tradition. The only film, to date, that Pertwee’s character survives in is the 2010 horror film “Devil’s Playground.”

(A small bit of trivia: This is Pertwee’s second werewolf film. The first being “Dog Soldiers” where he is also attacked by the creatures. Arguably Pertwee’s character could also count as having survived.)

“Howl” is a cracking good film with enough gore and edge of the seat viewing to entertain the pickiest horror film fan.  A solid 4.5 star film (it loses a half star for those clean carriages and for killing off Pertwee far too quickly) that is streaming on Hulu and Amazon at the moment. Check it out and see if you too fall in love with this film.

The Descent (2005): Girl Power

The Descent is Neil Marshall‘s second foray into the world of horror. Marshall once again wrote and directed the film, which is breathtaking in its execution. Where Marshall’s first film Dog Soldiers featured an almost all male cast (with the exception of Megan and the female camper who is dispatched at the beginning of the film) The Descent is an all female cast (with the exception the main character’s husband, again despatched at the beginning of the film, and some of the creatures in the cavern). It is almost as if Marshall is trying to develop this trend as a sort of trademark to his horror films.

The Descent begins with Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid)  white-water rafting. At the end of the rapids are Sarah’s husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) who wave and cheer at the women as they near the shore. Juno stands up in the raft, arms raised and Sarah laughingly pushes Juno out of the raft into the icy water. Sarah and Beth then take the raft to shore. Sarah gets out of the raft and goes to Jessica. Beth secures the raft to a branch, while Paul helps Juno out of the water. As Beth watches Juno and Paul exchange a look, which to us the audience and to Beth, seems to show that they are more than just friends.

As Paul drives away from the river with Sarah and Jessica, he appears withdrawn and distracted. When he takes  his eyes off the road to talk to Sarah, their car is hit by a mini-van driving towards them. Paul and Jessica both die in the collision. Sarah is hospitalized and goes through a break down moment. Beth is there for her friend, but Juno who has also turned up at the hospital, bursts into tears and leaves without seeing Sarah.

One year later, Beth is driving through the Appalachian mountains with Sarah. Juno has booked a caving holiday for Sarah and a group of their friends. The idea is that this will act as a sort of therapy for Sarah. The group are going to stay in a cabin near the Cavern that they will be exploring the next day.  Sarah and Beth are going to meet with  Juno,  Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring who is turning into a Marshall regular) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone who also appears in Marshall’s Doomsday) at the cabin.

After a night of disturbed sleep for Sarah, everyone is up bright and early to begin their descent into the caverns. Juno has a map of the caverns and Holly dismisses the whole idea of the trip as being boring since the cavern is a “tourist” cavern. The only thing missing, Holly states, are the stairs and bannisters. The girls descend into the cave and start going through it. As the group take a break for lunch Juno attempts to apologize for not visiting Sarah when she was in the hospital. Sarah is withdrawn and distant.

After lunch, the group proceed further into the cave. They end up going through a very tight space and Sarah gets stuck. Beth helps Sarah through and the space collapses after Sarah gets out.  The group now have no way to go back to the entrance. After an angry discussion, Juno admits that they are not exploring a known cave and that no one knows they have not gone to the cave she should have booked. Juno says that she has done this to help Sarah.

The girls then decide to push forward and look for another exit. They discover cave paintings and old caving equipment which seems to indicate there is another exit. They again push forward looking for more paintings and equipment as “signposts” to the way out. Holly sees light ahead and thinking they have found the exit rushes forward. One of the other girls shouts out that it can’t be another exit so soon and to slow down. Holly ignores her and takes a nasty tumble, breaking her leg.

The girls all climb down to help Holly and put her leg in a splint. While they are giving Holly first aid, Sarah looks around the area they’ve wound up in. She sees someone else in the cave. Thinking them to be more cavers, she shouts for them to help. The other’s in the group are convinced that Sarah, in her stressed state, has been seeing things. As they start to move forward, pasty white creatures attack the group.

The group scatters when the creatures attack. Juno attempts to keep them off of the immobile Holly with a climbing  pickaxe. At the apex of the fight Beth comes up behind Juno to help. Juno, thinking that Beth is another creature, acts instinctively and plants the pickaxe in Beth’s neck. Out of the six women who entered the cave, Holly has had her throat ripped out and Beth is mortally wounded,  the other four are scared and disorganised. The survivors not only have to find their way out of an unknown cave system, but they must also try  to stay alive long enough to do so.

Neil Marshall has made a true gem here. The film starts with a “heart-in-your-throat” moment. Marshall then proceeds to do everything he can to make us jump and squirm in our seats. Right up until the caver’s meet the creatures in the caverns, the claustrophobic  and uncomfortable atmosphere the group was facing  had me gasping for breath. Even if they had never met the creatures, just the suspense of getting though the cave was more exciting than what most other horror films have to offer.

This is one film that falls into that category of  “don’t miss.” Sadly the sequel,which was not done by Marshall, is a pale imitation at best. Although if you saw the original ending of the film, you are probably as confused as I was when I found that a Part 2 was in the mix.

Marshall has definitely given us a film that, quite probably, sets the goalposts for the term “Girl Power.”