Taglines like "the master of horror" have been banded around time and time again about many a Director or Writer, and they are sometimes right considering the genre and audience of the person the comment refers to. After all, there can be many masters depending on so many factors, particularly time. Masters come and go, and especially in Hollywood you're only as good as your last movie, or your most cult-ified movie.
Still, I watched The Descent by Neil Marshall last week and thought without a doubt that the opening line to this review should be something like..."The master of horror has arrived...and he's British". I bit melodramatic, but it gets the point across.
Without a doubt Neil Marshall is a supreme talent in horror that should not be ignored, especially by Hollywood who did just that with Dog Soldiers and is repeating it with The Descent, both of which have not had US cinema releases. It's a shame, because you're missing out a hell of a lot.
In Dog Soldiers Neil Marshall showed us that he could make a British horror with excellent homegrown talent, a low budget, plenty of convincing effects, scares, suspense and above all, fun. It was a superb first full length movie and it quickly gained a huge cult status, despite not receiving a US movie release.
For his second movie he's decided to stay with horror but this time dropping the fun factor and relying on pure horror, scare tactics and something he's proving to excel in, a very strong and realistic script. Something that hit me during the early scenes of the all female climbing group sitting in their cabin chatting, is the realism of their vocabulary and delivery. It's something that was obvious in Dog Soldiers as well and it appears that Marshall has a talent for this. He picks actors who are not widely known but have a knack for a natural style, and then gives them some of the most natural scripted lines I've heard in a long time. It's very refreshing and very obvious, making it stand apart from many other films in and out of this genre.
Quickly, many thanks to the Vue Ocean cinema at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh where I saw this movie. They have quite a few screens and it's always a good experience going. Have I said they have the best hotdogs? I'm sure I have!
From the outset Marshall tells us in no uncertain terms that there's no fun in this film, this is going to be hard, in your face horror. Oh, and expect the scares to be off tempo and unexpected. No matter how atune you think you are to avoiding jumping, shouting out, or just sitting with a grimace on your face, he'll hit you just about every time in this movie. It's scary and very dark.
One of the interesting things about this movie is how dark it is, unfortunately the brightness onscreen wasn't allowing black to be pure black, so all the darkness seemed a grey shade. It didn't affect my enjoyment of the movie, and I doubt many cinemas would ensure that the black was fully black, but it will be something to experience on the home cinema at some point. The reason this is so important is that it's how Marshall said that he had intended the movie to be, they used as many realistic light sources as they could through the movie. That means the head torches of the pot holers, flames, torches, etc. Frankly I can't imagine that they got away with realistic lighting throughout, but you certainly have that feel from beginning to end.
The whole movie gives you the feeling of enclosed spaces, darkness and the total loss of any bearings. For the most part you realise that the team are going in and deeper, but when trouble begins you loose all sense of direction and depth along with the characters. The person who saw the movie with me is a climber who absolutely hates potholing and the feelings of being cramped and trapped, this movie brought it all back with ease.
There is a slightly misleading subplot which didn't quite seem to be exploited fully, perhaps it just didn't work out or you were meant to think one way and be surprised when the opposite came true, yet it didn't quite do it for me. The one I'm talking about, and this isn't really a spoiler, is the fact that the main character is taking some kind of pills at the start of the movie and leaves them when she enters the caves. It seemed like a lot was made of that scene, and yet it wasn't exploited later on. Perhaps it is meant to tie in with the ending, but for me the connection was missing.
Once again the creatures in the movie are superb, not over the top like the other horror offering of the same ilk The Cave appears to be, where winged beasts are seen flying around the place, but grounded in reality. Again Marshall has looked at the creature of the movie and worked out what it would look like and how it would behave based more on science and our real world than folklore and fantasy. What he comes up with is a strangely unnerving creature which isn't as all powerful as other films would have, and is real enough to prey upon your own fears rather than allowing you to distance yourself from it with the comfort of that very word, fantasy.
The editing goes a long way to providing us with the shocks and scares on an offbeat tempo. You'll be expecting something, and nothing happens, you'll be expecting nothing, and then the audience screams or leaps. There are more than just scares in the movie though, there are plenty of surprises, twists and quite a few "oh my god" moments, all extremely well crafted, written, edited and directed onto the screen.
As for the talent of the female cast, there's not much to fault them. They are all so believable in their terror and confusion, but particular attention should be paid to MyAnna Buring as the lead, Sam, who takes you on a fantastic change of character, as does Natalie Jackson Mendoza. There's also the super sexy, along with Mendoza of course, Alex Reid who has some fantastic lines early on in the movie. Nora-Jane Noone also gives a superb and agonising performance during a few scenes where gasps and groans were echoing through the audience - that Marshall is a nasty man.
What I really like about this movie is the reality of it all, okay there are some belief suspension moments, but we're not talking parasitic worms that grow into forty foot winged beasts, we're talking something that isn't that far from what could actually occur. Then there's the characters themselves who speak and behave as you think you just might too, and it's that part that really grabs me into Marshall's movies. He's got a realistic script combined with actors who deliver realistic performances. With these positives in the movie you're hooked, pulled in, and there's nothing to distract you from being thrown around with the movie.
The ending is another strong part of the movie, it's also very well conceived, and you'll be sitting watching the credits roll still thinking about the movie, you'll even have walked away and still be thinking about it. You might feel slightly cheated, but I believe that's because we're too used to having everything handed to us on a plate in Hollywood, and this is perhaps why Hollywood hasn't taken either of Marshall's movies as yet, because they don't follow their standard movie template.
Looking back on the movie, I'd like it to have had a little bit more - and please excuse the expression - meat on it. Tying something more in with the main character and her state of mind, as well as the opening of the film, and perhaps a tiny little bit more on the ending of the movie would have made it perfect for me. I think it does a superb job in the horror\scare departments, but there was room for a bit more psychological based subplot, perhaps involving more character interplay.
On the whole though this is a superb horror movie, and Marshall has again shown his superb talents for writing, directing and editing a movie. Part of me is sad that Hollywood has missed him to date, but the majority is delighted that they haven't grabbed him and wrung his talent dry. Go see the movie (if you're in the UK!), and go to the toilet first!