Ambrose's execution has come, unless Sabrina can convince the council that Faustus was responsible for the Anti-Pope's murder.
The Cave. 2005. Directed by Bruce Hunt. Screenplay by Michael Steinberg & Tegan West.
Starring Cole Hauser, Eddie Cibrian, Morris Chestnut, Lena Headey, Piper Perabo, Rick Ravanello, Daniel Dae Kim, Kieran Darcy-Smith, and Marcel Iures. Screen Gems/Cinerenta Medienbeteiligungs KG/Lakeshore Entertainment/City Productions/Cineblue Internationale Filmproduktionsgesellschaft.
Rated 14A. 97 minutes.
Having recently reviewed Neil Marshall’s fabulously claustrophobic horror The Descent (which actually came out the exact same year this), I also decided on revisiting this guilty pleasure of mine. While I cannot, at all, say The Cave is a good movie, it’s not the worst I’ve seen, it’s – for me – on par with a lot of big budget popcorn flicks. And that was this is, a turn your brain off, have a snack and laugh with someone or even by yourself. Burn one down, throw this on. There are some laughable bits, absolutely. Are there some scary moments? For me, as someone who finds caves creepy, someone whose claustrophobia knows no bounds, and also as a person who loves the water/is terrified of it as well, there are definitely a handful of scenes where I found this movie really played hard on my fears.
The majority of The Cave‘s problem is the screenplay has one hell of an amazing plot and story, yet still this is squandered through bad dialogue, middle of the road acting, and effects which lack any sense of realism to help frighten us viscerally. Mostly, you could call this a creature feature, and though I find the creatures in this horror movie creepy, sort of intimidating at times, once you get more than the mysterious looks at it, hints of its size and power, the magic is lost. Regardless of its flaws – and there are a bunch – I’m still able to throw this on once every now and then, especially if I can’t think of anything else or if I know I want to turn my brain off a while to get some quasi-horror and a dose of action.
Decades previous to the film’s events, a team of explosives experts are caved in while exploring a stone church built deep in the Carpathian Mountains. Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures) arranges a team of scientists and cave divers to examine the ruins and the massive cave system which exists below the church itself. Two brothers, Jack (Cole Hauser) and Tyler McAllister (Eddie Cibrian), lead everyone into the caverns, travelling over its steep rock walls and its seemingly never ending pools of dark water, mapping territory no one else has ever set foot on.
Or perhaps someone has already.
Deeper and deeper into the cave system, Jack and the crew begin to discover there is in fact someone else who has been down in those caves before. Even worse than that, they never ever left. In fact, they got bigger… they got more vicious… and they adapted to a world underground, without light, in the cold, deep, dark waters.
The opening sequence is a lot of fun. Later, once the diving team are headed into the cave system there’s an excellent callback to the beginning, as we see what happened to those characters who went into the old mountain church, falling through the floor and into the murky depths of what lay below. I won’t ruin it for anyone who’s yet to see it, but I really dig that whole aspect. They could’ve easily done something different and less effective. This was a nice way to introduce the virus aspect of the creatures in the cave, all the while Cole Hauser’s character becomes a living representation of that. Although the screenplay is not solid, there are bits and pieces I do enjoy. Overall, it’s messy. I’m just glad certain sequences were written well enough that the entire film isn’t useless.
Many action moments come off decent, as well as scenes of intense horror. One part at which I always shudder: the crew are in one of the various underground lakes in the cave system, in two groups – Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures) is taken by one of the cave’s creatures, at which point Jack McAllister (Hauser) looks under the water only to see the monster disappearing further and further into the deep, dark waters below, fading into black. HONESTLY, this brief moment scared me as much as anything in Jaws, which is saying something because that is one film that always left an indelible mark on my psche (I love the ocean/am terrified by it). But, that being said, it’s only one scene. The rest of the movie is nowhere near up to par with Steven Spielberg’s classic. A few other creepy sequences exist in The Cave, though, nothing as wild and unsettling as this one I’ve mentioned. As far as action goes, I did like some of the rock climbing scenes; they brought intensity, as well as surprise in a few cases. So there’s enough action-adventure at times to keep you glued. Problem is, never enough to make you love the movie, or to get you past its myriad script/overall problems.
Director Bruce Hunt, by all accounts, should’ve done better. Perhaps I expect too much of a man whose career as a Second/Third Unit Director has been fairly impressive: Dark City (director – additional second unit + miniatures & visual effects director), The Matrix (second unit director), The Matrix Reloaded (third unit director: Australia), The Matrix Revolutions (third unit director), as well as Australia (director – splinter unit), and the nice looking but less than stellar Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (second unit director – splinter unit). Sadly, none of his previous work comes to bear on this project. For a man who had a part in the effects of Dark City especially, I expected something more. Nevertheless, many of the special effects here are brutal, and it’s only when the cave monsters are relatively still that they look good. In other scenes where they’re flying around or attacking the diving team, they look terribly cheesy and underdeveloped, patched together with bad CGI. If more practical work could’ve been done, The Cave and its creatures could easily have raised above mediocre to forgettable. Instead, we’re left with not only a poor screenplay, but also too many visuals lacking the proper effectiveness a monster movie must have in order to be successful.
This is, at best, a 2(out of 5)-star film. The story itself is intriguing enough, as well as the film’s opening sequence and the return to it later in the plot. But an interesting plot does not a proper movie make. The acting isn’t anywhere near what it should be, considering everything else falls so flat. If there were a few better elements the film could’ve passed for half decent. Instead, it is less than mediocre and forgettable. All the same, I still watch it from time to time as a guilty pleasure.
The Descent. 2005. Directed & Written by Neil Marshall.
Starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll, Craig Conway, and Leslie Simpson. Celador Films/Northmen Productions/Pathé.
Rated 18A. 99 minutes.
Personally I’ve enjoyed Neil Marshall from his debut, Dog Soldiers, and then he came on with this film and it all but cemented him as a solid horror filmmaker; hell, filmmaker in general. Since then he’s done two underrated movies – Doomsday and Centurion, neither of which are amazing, though, they are better than their reputations – a couple episodes of Black Sails, Game of Thrones, and one whopper of a Hannibal episode in the 3rd season “The Great Red Dragon“. He’s also got a segment titled “Bad Seed” in the upcoming Tales of Halloween I cannot wait to see!
What I enjoy about Marshall is that he’s not just a director with a neat way of looking at things, he’s also, what I think is, a pretty wonderful director in terms of form; he simply films things in an interesting way. There’s nothing boring about his films or the episodes of television series’ he has directed. The reason so many filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre I must say, fail to really get over with their work is because their style is either a) too bland in terms of story/character/et cetera, b) too flashy (with no substance), or c) it’s just not overly enjoyable to experience visually. With Marshall, and I’ll single The Descent out from his work as the best example, he doesn’t opt so much to jump scare you here in order to create that feeling of action, or horror (or whatever he happens to be going for at the moment). His visual style helps to keep you rooted and then everything else just builds on – the drama, the horror, the suspense and tension. In this film, there’s plenty of imagery, a good lot of horror, and the characters help make things fun (even in the grim sense). Marshall’s movie can easily be considered as one of my top 10 horror movies since 2000, I’ll say that without hesitation.
A trio of friends – Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) go rafting on the river; their idea of vacationing. On the way home, Sarah sits in the passenger seat of a vehicle while her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) drives, and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) sits in the backseat. All of sudden, though, they meet head-on with another vehicle – Sarah survives, but Paul and Jessica are horribly killed.
One year later, Sarah, Beth, and Juno, along with a bunch of other adventure seeking women, go on an expedition to a cave system in the Appalachians, somewhere in the U.S. Deep in the woods they eventually find their cave, making their way in. However, after a little while things start to get dicey. First, their climb starts to go wrong little by little. But then soon enough it’s apparent to the women they aren’t alone in the caves.
Deep underground, stuck beneath the vast and reaching Appalachians, the group of friends find themselves in a fight for their lives against terrifying, human eating monsters, adapted to their environments below the earth. They’ll have to fight hard in order to make it out alive; if that’s even possible.
So for me, and no doubt many others, what makes The Descent so incredibly effective is the sense of isolation and claustrophobia almost built into the setting. Furthermore, once the women get trapped after a tunnel caves in, this gets even worse as – plot point – Juno (Mendoza) has taken them all into an unknown cave, not in the correct system they’d all planned on, and so essentially even without any outside forces these women might have never made it out of the caves regardless. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts about this film is that you could easily have seen this as simply a dramatic thriller about a bunch of women heading into the caves, including the dynamics between Sarah (Macdonald) and Juno, in terms of what happened to the former and her family and how it connects with the latter.
Instead of being simple and dark, Neil Marshall has written a fantastic screenplay. Whereas a movie like The Cave (which I honestly enjoy as a popcorn flick even though it isn’t great) is lower common denominator for horror, more like a Michael Bay equivalent in the genre, The Descent opts to be more cerebral, and in turn when the visuals and the horror get thick things become pretty visceral, too. The characters here are complex, they aren’t one-dimensional type women. Which is another point, that Marshall has given us a bunch of excellent female characters and the man character, dare I say the heroine, she’s an ass-kicker. I like that it’s not the typical formulaic horror including women, such as the male dominated film with a “Final Girl”. Even though, yes, Sarah can be considered that “Final Girl”, it’s not the overused scenario, the same tired place where we’ve expected the plot to develop. Marshall brings all these women together, each different, and doesn’t need any men in order to instigate the horror, or any of the action. The faceless/featureless crawlers in the cave only bring further terror. Even while that whole KILLER V. VICTIM dynamic is playing out, as it usually does in one shape or another throughout the horror genre, I like that these female characters can inhabit a filmic space where these featureless monsters are the attackers, not some slasher, a deranged male who hates women; rather they’re simply the horror beneath, the unknown below.
More than that, these creatures also represent a symbolic sort of theme. Clearly the buried secrets between Juno and Sarah, concerning the former’s relationship with the deceased Paul (Milburn), are being unearthed; it’s possible without their predicament, the descent into the cave and into madness, this might never have come out. So in a way, these crawlers down in the cave are the literal, material embodiment of the ideas surrounding those buried secrets. They say secrets can eat you alive, right? Well in The Descent, this sentiment comes alive, in a brutally literal sense with secrets making their way out of the realm of ideas and into reality.
There are a few wonderful bits of imagery in this film, both in terms of symbolic/dreamy images and straight up horror visuals.
Right after the opening sequence, where Sarah’s husband/daughter die, there’s the beginning of a dreamy moment which crops up over and over, though not to overkill. Sarah has these short visions of a birthday cake with her daughter’s name on it, the candles lit up – I love the way these shots come to us, brief, really dark with what looks like natural lighting, and it has this eerie quality to it. What I enjoy is that these dreamy bits don’t feel particularly happy, more like the morbid remembrance of a dead child instead of anything happy. So there’s this really melancholy feeling I find struck in the character of Sarah without even much effort from Macdonald as an actor, although she’s great in spite of that making the role better for it. This is a striking visual Marshall uses a few times throughout the film, and while I say it’s melancholy there’s still part of it which sort of drives Sarah at the same time. Great, great stuff.
When it comes to the horror of Marshall’s film, several scenes and moments stick out ahead of the pack. I love how Marshall includes the first very close-up view of a crawler through the perspective of a camera in night vision. Why do I love it? He doesn’t use the camera as a gimmick other than, really, two or three times in the entire movie. It comes into play organically, with purpose, instead of simply being a way for Marshall to creep us out without doing the legwork. In opposition, the choice uses of the night vision camera shots make things creepy, knocking us off balance and in the case of the first time it’s used the effect amps the film’s pace up to a roar. The next couple times, again it’s not forced into the plot and works well. If the night vision was being used more frequently, as is the case in many found footage efforts trying to capture The Blair Witch Project magic in a bottle, there’d be a case for saying it was gimmicky, that it served no purpose and got jammed in for lack of ideas. Instead, Marshall uses this technique to his advantage and creates tension with how the handheld camera captures the monsters in the dark and the creepy environment of the cave. Plus, this is a director who doesn’t need any kind of trickery, he does well enough with his own sensibilities in terms of shot composition and overall visuals without having to settle for cheap scares.
Once the crawlers are out in the open, being seen full-on by both characters and viewers alike, there are some almost trippy visuals happening. There’s one incredibly tense scene where two of the women are hiding together, a crawler moving along by them, and their watch eventually goes off – all the while Juno is wandering alone, calling out to the others – and there’s this green filter over the two women/crawler (not really a filter; they’re using a huge glow stick), then for a few seconds we cut to Juno whose shot is bathed in a red light. There’s something about this which raises the tension. Not only that, the angles at which Marshall has things framed specifically while the two women hide from the crawler, it’s an unsettling, unstable sort of feeling it draws out; literally, the frame is askew, we’re off-kilter, not balanced, and the crawler coming at them sort of feels like he’s coming right at the viewer.
Furthermore, I have to say the effects – blood and gore, the monsters, et cetera – were at times really subtle, and other times (think: pool of blood scene) totally gnarly and in-your-face. My favourite honestly is the scene where Sarah finds herself in the blood pool, fighting off the crawler and stabbing it in the eye. Not only is it just wildly savage and bloody, the low lighting and the blood casts everything again in that red glow, so you’ve got two types of imagery – very visual in the sense of colour and visual in the way of actual physical nastiness, the blood and kills.
Overall, though, it’s the way Marshall manages to use the darkness to his advantage and he doesn’t make it dizzying. While some horror, mostly found footage these days, has your head swirling with the darkness too often being used to cover up a project’s low budget (or lack thereof), unless used correctly, Marshall manages to make things claustrophobic but doesn’t annoy us with how he accomplishes this feeling. It’s because, even when shots are frantic and full of chaos, he’s not making it seem so by having the camera itself being shaky, only the characters, their lights in the dark create the effect. He keeps in tight to the characters, putting us with them and in their perspective as much as possible without, for instance, putting us right in their video camera’s view while they run from the crawlers. Again this comes back to Marshall using that video camera perspective sparsely, when a lesser director may have exploited it too much to try and immerse the viewer. The way this film plays out in the dark and uses it appropriately is a big part of its effectiveness as a tensely frightening modern horror movie.
With truck loads of horror, both blood/gore and emotional terror, an impressive visual style, a solid script with real and well-written female characters, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is pound for pound a 4.5 out of 5 star film. There’s very little to say, in my mind, against this movie. There are so many other horror movies out there in the post-2000 landscape of film which go for bargain basement plots, silly characters with even sillier and less thought out dialogue, cheap jump scares and pointless (as well as badly done) gore. Marshall doesn’t do anything typically here, he crafts a genuinely scary, emotionally testing and at various points traumatizing horror. There’s a feeling in me each time I watch this, for a little while afterwards, as if I’ve been through an ordeal. It’s one of the closest experiences I’ve personally had to the one I have when viewing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is still my pick for scariest horror movie ever made, and pretty much my top favourite.
So if you’ve not yet seen The Descent, do yourself a favour and search it out soon because it’s worth your while to experience its dread and tension, its inescapable horror and wild plot. I also thought the sequel was an all right movie, though, it’s not near as amazing as this one.