- The Descent: Six gorgeous women with a lousy idea of a good time.
The old Lucas/Spielberg stunt of turning B-movie peekaboos into E-ticket thrill rides remains the industry standard -- to the virtual exclusion of other multiplex fare, particularly when school's out. But as not every kid who remade Raiders in Super 8 either gave up the dream or morphed into Michael Bay, there's at least one next-generation movie brat whose acrobatic genre workouts have lingered below budgetary ground zero without going straight to video hell -- and his name is Neil Marshall. Just how unique is this penny-pinching wrangler of seven-foot-tall werewolves and cave-dwelling people-eating gargoyles? Not since John Sayles and Joe Dante unleashed Piranha and The Howling on Hollywood's New Morning have two features torn open the horror movie with the cut-rate ferocity and gleeful disreputability of Marshall's Dog Soldiers and The Descent -- both made without CGI or celebrities (and, as you might guess, without U.S. financing, either).
Whatever this thirtysomething Brit auteur lacks in satiric savvy (a lot, alas), he recoups through cheeky showmanship, razor-sharp 35mm shooting in low light (Michael Mann might want to rewire that HD cam), and as much Karo syrup as he can spill. Dog Soldiers, Marshall's brutal, hilarious debut, takes all of two minutes to dismember its first pair of lycanthrope victims, a young couple making out in a tent. (Wolves at the door, indeed: One zipper pull leads to another in Marshall's camp.) Comparatively subdued, The Descent waits a full three minutes to commence its bloodbath: A road-tripping dad and young daughter are swiftly skewered in one of those Omen-style highway accidents (ingeniously staged by the director), leaving poor Mom (Shauna Macdonald) to suffer guilt-tinged nightmares. After a year of mourning (offscreen, of course), Sarah, our Scottish heroine, is coaxed into an Appalachian cave-diving expedition with her clique of absurdly extreme sportswomen -- the sort who like to hang upside down from rocks and crawl through body-sized crevices several miles below ground. In one such tight spot, Sarah, stricken with both claustrophobia and enduring grief, takes momentary solace from one of her five fellow spelunkers (indistinguishable, except for the one who's a ruthless bitch): "The worst thing that could've happened to you has already happened."
Hardly. If Dog Soldiers is Platoon at war with Predator, The Descent, once its army of slithering, sharp-toothed hominoid fiends traps the women in its mazelike lair, is an underground Aliens with shades of the mid-'50s Mole People. In the great B tradition, Marshall gets a lot out of nothing, the dark in particular: A good half of the wide screen is pitch-black much of the time; although this genre excavator begins his subterranean adventure with a half-dozen flashlights, one strapped to each woman's helmet, that number quickly decreases as horror conventions require. Exploring gender as well as genre, Dog Soldiers and The Descent play out differently (let's just say the Lone Wolf is no Final Girl), but both are barebones survivalist shockers by a fanboy populist who clearly relishes the challenge of being out of time, low on ammo, and down to his last two shots. Released stateside in August to capitalize on blockbuster burnout, The Descent stands to scare up a fortune, which could threaten the career of a director whose resistance to budgetary bloat has been his rarest virtue. Marshall's jolly command of the genre Cuisinart--"Remains of the Day meets Die Hard" is how he has spun one potential follow-up to The Descent -- hardly begs for a $200 million budget or even a $50 million one, much as studio Bruckheimers will want to bribe him with such a bounty.
Or maybe Marshall's playfully assaultive slashers, less piercing than Saw, represent the new cutting edge; maybe The Descent points to our downward mobility in a way that even conservative moguls can recognize as shrewd. After all, not even Superman hits the stratosphere these days; no less than George and Steven have been heard mulling a return to their "roots." (Can you picture Duel's demonic semi pulling into Mel's Drive-In for a chocolate malt, "That'll Be the Day" spilling out of the speakerbox? Would that be before or after Indy 4?) Nearly every newspaper profile of the Newcastle-born Marshall has him gushing that his young life was saved by Raiders of the Lost Ark -- and indeed, The Descent does dig into the Spielbergian treasure trove, wherein the creepy-crawlies elicit as many smiles as screams. Still, what's most exciting about Marshall, 30 years after Jaws and Star Wars blockbusted the lowbrow, is his bid to return the Bs to their rightful place below ground.