With all the hubbub about The Descent dominating the various horror media outlets in 2005, another spelunking splatter film went "kerplunking" in the already saturated minds of horror fans, ending up with something of an "uglier sister" reputation. Folks, it might not sport the unique director's eye of Neil Marshall or a deep, double-meaning title, but The Cave offers something The Descent does not: its actually shot in a cave. Which makes it kind of...well, deeper.
But does that make it worth a look? I'm here to tell you that it does.
The Descent adopts the still fashionable "old is new again approach" as it allows the audience to simmer early with the characters for an amount of time that in modern Hollywood script notes would warrant lots of Syd Field Seminar-fueled, red ink. 2005's Wolf Creek took this approach as well, which could be described as early 70's horror bait and switch: we enjoy the witty camaraderie of a group of attractive, young characters just coming through the other side of some of life's mysteries only to trap them and one by one pick their bones clean. Its cruel and quite effective if done well, and The Descent, with its cast of unknowns that actually looked as though they might like each other, did it fairly well.
The Cave takes a different approach. Its budget wasn't much larger than its "Women on the Verge" second cousin, but its concept was far more typically first-run direct. For one, it beats a drum straight down main street with its title. No doubt as to what this is about, ticket buyers. Its what you've seen before in a new setting and with new monsters. And fret not, people will die. Well, ditch-deep characters will die. Not that we'll care so much because we know we'll likely see these archetypes � and possibly the very same actors � again on TV in a Sci-fi Channel rip-off "original" called "The Mine". And once this ride gets rolling, we can almost set our watches to the moment when our first character buys it. Of course, we can usually pick with veritable certainty which of the expendable it will be. Then, after about an hour, we're going to get a decent glimpse of what it was that killed him or her. And during that hour, we'll steady ourselves for the manner in which the next few will be snuffed out. After that, we'll try and guess if said killer can itself be killed, who will make it out, who will sacrifice themselves so that the lucky may live and finally, hope for a twist at the end. Fade to black, roll credits, find a bar.
And that's fair enough, I say. In a story about an undiscovered ecosystem found in a cave beneath the ruins of a 13th century abbey involving a diverse group of expert divers and adrenaline junkie spelunkers, we have films like Alien and The Abyss to remind us that these things can actually turn out entertaining, and sometimes downright groundbreaking. Instead of a group of MILFs and frock jocks sitting around smoking dope and doing impressions of men ripping belches and beer farts, we have our studly-yet-sensitive hero Tyler (Eddie Cibrian, "Third Watch", "Vanished"), our button pushing, shapeshifting leader Jack (Cole Hauser, Pitch Black), our hot but hardy leading lady (Lena Headey, The Brothers Grimm, and the upcoming 300 and "The Sarah Conner Chronicles") and a smattering of hard-nosed and specially-skilled side characters that we may or may not like, and who may or may not make it out alive.
I don't have to tell you, dear reader, that there's something "down there" that will dumbfound our team long enough to get the drop on them. I also don't have to tell you that there will be infighting among the intrepid that will weaken their ability to fend off the evil forces, and that one or two might be secretly accompanying the expedition with some darker, more personal agenda. You already know all that. But I can shed a little light on something you may not be aware of: huge waterfalls under the ground actually exist! And if you rent The Cave, you will see them. And not only that, you will see deep, twisting caverns, murky, creature-lurkworthy sumps, and incredible chasms that, if improperly negotiated, will leave you never to be seen of again until you come floating up at the base of a rocky ravine of rapids. Director Bruce Hunt hired a man by the name of Wes Skiles of Karst Productions to direct the actors with an underwater unit of photography deep inside some real caves in the Yucotan. The results make all the difference in the underworld. And where the action of The Descent began to devolve into looking like actors running an obstacle course through a set from the TV show "Enterprise", The Cave just continues to both draw you in and blow you away with shots of locations that very few human beings have ever seen. In fact, the special DVD featurette entitled "Into the Cave" is alone worth the rental. These places are as dangerous as they are beautiful and fascinating, and for a modestly budgeted yarn, I'd say shooting in these environments was one of the most successful green-lit production risks in horror filmmaking history.
The drama that takes place in these amazing locales is serviceable at best, but it does keep moving at a well-measured clip. I was relieved that the creatures encountered were presented with a deft combination of CGI and actors in suits, much like the Alien films that clearly inform many of the creative screenwriting decisions here. Also, there is an evolution plot twist that I don't want to give away too completely, but I will say I would have preferred that Hunt decided to show us more of any transformations that were supposedly taking place to help make the biological jump a little easier. And the challenges of creating a believable "alien" ecosystem myth always involves explaining the reproduction life-cycle and the relevant food chain. In The Cave, I wasn't entirely convinced by what they were selling, yet I was actually able to suspend my disbelief further than was possible when considering a similar offer made in The Descent. Blind, pigmentless creatures don't scale to the surface to hunt or they wouldn't have gone blind or pigmentless. But hey, they did look cool.
Like ordering a birthday present for yourself, The Cave delivers what you already know is coming, which in itself is something of a back-handed compliment. Still, even when the surprise is muted, some gifts come surprisingly well-crafted and with that touch of passion in their design one doesn't always expect. So is true with The Cave. And after delving into the art of exploration in these breath-taking environs, I was left with the feeling that I'd actually gotten that extra something I didn't expect: something that made watching the film a scarier, richer exprience, while making me glad I'd taken the dive.