THE DESCENT (2005)
DOG SOLDIERS returns to the kind of lycanthrope comedy-horror that hasn't been seen since AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.
WITH their seven foot tall werewolves and cave-dwelling people eaters, Neil Marshall’s DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT gleefully tore open the heart of the British horror movie. What Marshall lacks in budget and satiric savvy, he recoups through razor-sharp shooting in low-light and as much blood as he can spill; DOG SOLDIERS takes all of two minutes to dismember its first pair of victims, while THE DESCENT wait’s a full three to skewer a father and young daughter. Both pictures are barebone survivalist shockers, but the Newcastle-born auteur - in the great tradition of the B movie - gets a lot out of nothing, the dark in particular.
Portrayed well, the werewolf is the most sympathetic of monsters. David Kessler, the lead character in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, embodied the creature as a near-tragic figure, while GINGER SNAPS (2000) drew comparisons between lycanthropy and the onset of menstruation for the Buffy generation. This horror of transformation is at the heart of the werewolf condition, a fact disappointingly ignored by DOG SOLDIERS; rather than a werewolf movie, it is a soldiers-under-siege picture reminiscent of James Cameron. The first glimpses of the towering beasts are effective enough: silhouetted for a few frames between trees, and shards of cold illumination backlight the swirling fog akin to Ridley Scott, but there are far too many inconsistencies. Why, for example, would the werewolves conceive an elaborate trap which turns their home into a battlefield rather than simply devour their prey in the wild?
Exaggerating the usual horror movie gambit (pretty girls in danger), THE DESCENT invites you to reconsider your generic expectations. As the girls play all the variously gendered roles, they’re as aggressive, selfish, mean, and courageous as any male characters have been in similar situations.
Far more polished is Marshall’s second feature; both a commercial and critical success, THE DESCENT is the story of female friends on an ill-fated caving trip in the Appalachian Mountains. As the group journeys deeper underground, repressed antagonisms return - particularly those between Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) - and freakish, cannibalistic creatures shadow their every move. Taking forty-five minutes to introduce its albino monsters, Marshall keeps the suspense high enough beforehand with its exploration scenes of cave-ins and bone-crunching falls. Red flares, green glowsticks and yellow torches all penetrate the natural dark, and atmospheric use is made of the ghoulish grey-greens of a video camera’s infared. The orcesque, chattering “crawlers” are satisfyingly repulsive, recalling the figurative hillbillies of American Gothic and the Morlocks from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). These humanoids, admittedly, are blind reductions of us, hunting, feeding and inbreeding in their own nuclear “family.”
Acknowledged by Marshall as a key influence, John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE (1972) - along with the underpinning of self-destruction in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) - is a story of accepting past wounds and humiliations in order to form a future. THE DESCENT’s character arcs are not as rich, but Sarah’s progressive madness isn’t a gratuitous tag; from the moment Sarah wakes up in hospital after the car accident, the character is looking for her dead daughter. And, in the end, she finds her.