I've seen Dog Soldiers and, oddly enough, Doomsday, but only just saw The Descent (wait, what's with all the D's, Neil?–and your upcoming one is a D too? Weird…). I shrugged it off originally (surrounded as it was by things like The Cave, plus the fact that it received wide release in American theatres as a horror film–these days usually not a sign of definitive worthlessness, but usually not a sign of something overly creative) until someone I trusted recommended it, then built up steam as it was pointed out to me that it was the work of Neil Marshall, who created Dog Soldiers, one of that scarce handful of good werewolf movies around, with werewolves the source for my own screenname in various places (including here). I bought it last Halloween but only recently got around to it, wandering from disc to disc, each failing to play until I gave up and traded out the DVD player itself. Then, finally, I saw it.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her friends Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring) are thrill-seekers, who we first meet whitewater rafting, traversing a short set of falls before leaving at what is clearly the end of the trip, helped out of the water by Sarah's husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll), as the group then begins to the drive home. A moment's distraction ends in tragedy, leaving Sarah alone, naturally distressing her and her friends. A year later Juno has been tasked with doing something for Sarah to bring her out of the inevitable depression of her loss, their friends and Juno's "protegé" Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) going along for the ride–this time a spelunking expedition in the Appalachians, with Juno abandoning the "tourist trap" caving system for one she has found herself. When an unexpected cave in leaves them trapped, they find themselves struggling to find a way out of a previously unexplored caving system–one they soon learn is already occupied.
The strongest association I drew with this film was actually to a similarly "throwback" plotted horror film from two years prior–Wrong Turn. What fascinated me about that film built some of my fascination with this one. Both are playing with essential plots (being picked off by less-than-human things), but manage to twist them in somewhat subtle and unusual ways, taking the modern sensibility of film-making and placing it in the horror context. Artifice used to be built into most films, coming from a stage mentality that had a similar approach–"heightened reality." More recent films have pushed against this, with independent and arthouse films more interested in portraying people realistically have led to a disinterest in that artificial form of acting and a greater emphasis on the "real"–or at least the acceptably "realistic." The Descent works on this same approach, abandoning the 80s mentality (and often 90s and even 00s) of characterization in horror in favour of characters who are strong and work not exactly on the "If I were there…" fan comments, but on a line somewhere between that and the often incomprehensible (to an audience aware there's a psychotic killer or flesh-eating monster) stupidity that previously existed in horror. They are not infallible (thus ruining the connection to the endless self-aggrandizing of the jackasses who proclaim that, "If I were there, I'd be using my knowledge of physics to bank the machete off the wall and decapitate two or three…"), but they are not endlessly fallible either. If this film had been made 20 years earlier, the characters would likely know nothing about caving, with a single expert along who did (and would, in all probability, die so as to leave them in a more desperate situation because of their combined ignorance of the necessary survival skills for their current predicament) and all be infighting constantly in such a way as to walk out of the sense of claustrophobic danger and into a sideplot that seems to hijack a scene so two characters can fight about their soap opera issues. Here the "soap opera issues" (which have been criticized, usually by the same souls who imagine themselves as perfect, focused, killing machine badasses) are intermittent, never distracting from the plot and natural extensions of existing character frustration.
One of the handier elements of this new mentality is a greater interest in having characters in the "actual people" sense populating a film over the empathy based so purely in manipulative, unrealistic events (which often failed anyway–causing the preference for, as Rob Zombie put it, Leatherface over, say, Franklin–though Hooper's work was not so focused on manipulation and is an exception). Sarah does not constantly talk about her loss, though clearly it is always on her mind (as such a thing would be), and it is not discussed endlessly between everyone else. What boils up is only Juno's disappearance after the accident, the arrogance and gloryhounding she clearly exhibits and the fact that these things are relevant to their predicament–it is because of the former they are on the trip, and because of the latter that they are in such danger, with the former being brought into stronger by relief by the re-purposing of an event to help Sarah into a "fortune and glory" hunt for Juno. But the interesting thing is that Juno herself is not clearly drawn–not in the sense of a failure on Neil Marshall's writing or direction, nor on Mendoza's performance. She's drawn grey intentionally, her motivation not so clear as "what her friends accuse her of is expositional revelation"–it's simply their accusation, and it's just as definitive as any accusation is. Only evidence can prove it true or false, and there is certainly negative evidence against Juno, but there is an element of overly accusatory behaviour around her. Some of the negative things she does are simply interpreted as worse than they are, or less acceptable than they are, considering the situation at hand.
I cannot sit by and review this film, though, without noting the bizarre and stupid edit made to the American version (which, thankfully, I did not see). The original ending was seen as, allegedly, "too dark" for American audiences (the original ending, which I saw, occurring in the UK cut without hesitation). This is a load of bollocks (if you'll pardon my bemused and pseudo-ironic slang-switch) and is exactly the kind of mentality that I think spawns nonsensical acts like the dumbing down of Ringu into a club-you-over-the-head-obvious "metaphor" in The Ring. This idea that American audiences can't "handle" things is ridiculous. If it were anything but a horror film, yes, there would definitely be a percentage of the population that felt that way, but this is a horror film. Horror fans are used to darkness (American horror has not shied away from it, why should an imported film have to?), even in endings. This change was unnecessary and stupid. The original ending is perfect and brings Neil full circle to what makes his films so interesting. He played with werewolves, then inhuman beasts and finally with Mad Max. He brings a much more horrifying reality to all of these existing concepts–the gore in all three films is a lot more shocking than gore has any right to be in horror films at this point in time, and is usually carried off like it is an actual injury to a character rather than a way to showcase brilliant effects work. The reality of many of his characters is what helps in this, and what helps to shape his films into something like a subtle re-working of existing tropes–but not one that pretentiously aims to do so. Instead, to continue with my own feeling–it's like Wrong Turn, realistic characters with stronger-than-usual senses of self-preservation and awareness in stressful situations deal as best they can with a monstrous and inhuman threat, and it creates more visceral, more thrilling and more disturbing experiences, something that, for now at least, continues to be fresh for me, and quite entertaining and interesting as a result.
My final note for this review has to be the interesting way Neil assembled the idea of the film–there's a sort of shrugging quality to the landscape and nature shots. Whenever the characters are walking or driving through it, or when the woods are shown without anyone visible in them–it's strangely alien, cold and dark, with an emphasis on the brutal disinterest in nature, the callous disregard for human life, yet the recognition that there's no reason to specially value it, contrasted with the sobbing, ecstatic joy of a threatened life escaping from that callousness that shows in the broad, emotional responses of humans. It was another good sized chunk of what I really like about Neil's work so far–it perfectly enhances that disturbing inevitability of death, the inevitability of violent death, especially, in the situations his characters find themselves in that pushes the viewing experience so firmly into territory that is so rarely explored in horror–or at least modern horror, and especially wide-theatrical releases.