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Beware, the cave man

Six women find themselves in deep trouble in British writer-director Neil Marshall's new thriller, `The Descent.'

August 06, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

A volatile mix of nail-biting suspense and blood-soaked thrills, "The Descent" is, quite simply, one of those films that puts a permanent crease on the brain of most everyone who has seen it.

The film, which opened Friday, revolves around six women who set out to explore an Appalachian cave as an adventure holiday. In short order they find themselves trapped deep underground, lost in an uncharted cave system. There, they stumble upon a society of carnivorous creatures intent on making the women their next meal.

Throwing down with an emotionally devastating shock even before the close of the opening credits, "The Descent" establishes British writer-director Neil Marshall as a bold and fresh voice in horror filmmaking: Troubling and traumatic, the roiling pressure-cooker of a film takes its characters to the edge of their endurance -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- and by default it pushes audiences there as well.

The film is the de facto American debut for Marshall. His actual first feature, the soldiers-fighting-werewolves "Dog Soldiers," was also a horror film, although it did not receive theatrical distribution in the U.S. Though Marshall says he is interested in other genres as well, there are just some things that horror handles better.

"Obviously, it's a genre that allows you free rein to explore the darker sides of human nature," he said on a recent swing through Los Angeles promoting the film. "You can get away with the downbeat, unhappy, ambiguous ending that you can't get away with in other genres.

"From a personal level, I love watching the audience react to the scares, shuffle nervously in their seats, the sweating. It's the ultimate reward as a horror film director."

And shuffle and sweat they do. As British critic Mark Kermode noted in the Observer, "I jumped, I gasped, I winced, I cringed and, for lengthy periods, I simply held my breath." Or, as John Fallon colorfully added on JoBlo.com: "It's been a while since a horror flick stomped my skull to ashes in its harshness, scared me silly and moved me on an emotional level all at the same time."

The film's serious scares have movie-goers watching through their fingers, but translating that ineffable excitement into ticket sales for a film from a relatively unknown director and without name stars may be as challenging as battling flesh-hungry mutants.

The most recent poster and the film's TV spots explicitly sell "The Descent" as "from the studio that brought you 'Saw' and 'Hostel,' " invoking the names of two previous horror successes from the film's distributor, Lionsgate. Whatever the films actually do or don't have in common, the ads have a distinct "if you like that, get a load of this" angle to them.

"That is something we've never done," said Tim Palen, co-president of marketing at Lionsgate, about referencing their own previous releases in the ad campaign for "The Descent."

"We don't use the name of 'Saw' in vain. It's holy at Lionsgate," Palen said. "And I feel really strongly you don't cry wolf with stuff like that, I think it's important for people to know we think it lives up to that standard.... We've been in the position before where we could have, and we chose not to."

For all the blood and gore that is in "The Descent," many of the film's biggest jump-out-of-your-seat moments come from more classical suspense tactics. Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, carefully employed a strategy whereby the only lighting on screen comes from something the women have carried into the cave (headlamps, flashlights or glow sticks) or fires they start. Much of the screen is often pitch-black, engaging the primal fear of being scared of the dark.

As well, Marshall employed a fairly basic tactic to get the biggest reaction from his heroine adventurers when they first confront one of the monsters they will soon engage in battle -- he didn't allow the actresses to see the "crawler" costumes until cameras were rolling for the scene.

Marshall is pleased with the way the film walks a line between suspense and gore, because he used one to push the other.

"As a fan, I love both kinds. I don't come from the school of 'It must be gory.' In the context of this film the gore seemed necessary to the way the story progressed. I needed the supernatural element to take it to a new place. I couldn't sustain it as a horror film just having small spaces or fear of heights. If I made the film without any gore, it would have burned itself out."

The film was released in the U.K. last summer and has already opened in territories all over the world. For the U.S. release the ending of the film has been changed, and a brief coda has been excised.

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The end game

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