First Rule Of 'The Descent': You Do Not Talk About 'The Descent'

'It's a dark ride,' film's director says of secretive horror flick, which hits theaters Friday.

SAN DIEGO — Moviegoers worldwide who have already become devout fans of "The Descent" have built impressive buzz around the terrifying flick that hits theaters this weekend.

The fervor surrounding the film's U.S. release is even more impressive, however, when you consider the cult audience's politely observed "Fight Club"-like rule: You do not talk about "The Descent."

"I've been really careful," star Natalie Mendoza said recently, urging people to maintain the film's secrets. "I don't want to say anything to give it away. One of my friends went to see it, and I really didn't tell him what to expect. He was so shocked. He thought it was terrifying enough, with all the claustrophobic caving moments. ... Then all of a sudden, the film takes a turn."

It's the first of many turns in the twisted terror tale, which features more unexpected diversions than the Appalachian Mountains pit that swallows Mendoza and her female co-stars, turning their "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" weekend into something more like the bloodiest episode of "The View."

"I thought it was such an unusual concept to have an all-woman cast," beamed Mendoza, who added that the flick makes for a great ladies' night out. "It's a girl-power kind of film."

"For men, you get to watch six really beautiful women go down a cave in Lycra," laughed director Neil Marshall, the British mastermind behind another cult favorite, the 2002 werewolf thriller "Dog Soldiers." "[This film] is about much more than just a physical descent. It's a descent into savagery, and it's a descent into madness. It's a dark ride."

According to Mendoza, that promise alone has been enough to attract huge audiences in other countries and at film festivals, where the film has been playing for more than a year.

"We started it from such a humble beginning," marveled the actress, who has appeared briefly in American releases like "Moulin Rouge" and "Code 46." "It was an independent film. It was pretty low-budget, with six unknown actors. ... I was so amazed at how it was perceived in London. To know that it was well-received internationally is absolutely astounding and amazing."

What Lurks Beneath

Watch deadly crawlers surprise a group of cave explorers in this sneak peek of "The Descent."

"It's been a pretty long journey," grinned Marshall, who recently screened the film for a sold-out geek audience at Comic-Con, the California celebration of all things geeky (see "Comic-Con Recap: 'Spider-Man 3' Surprises; Snoop, Samuel L. Reveal Inner Geeks"). "It came out in the U.K. in July last year, and since then, it's opened right across the world. ... Critically, it's done really well. It's picked up some awards in the U.K. too, which is unheard of for a horror film."

Now, thanks to heavy support from U.S. distribution company Lionsgate, the unspeakable horror flick is building a notorious reputation alongside the studio's "Saw" and "Hostel" film franchises. Lionsgate has been handing out Depends adult diapers to viewers, and advance screenings have featured audio of women screaming in terror while the audience waits for the movie to begin. Typically, viewers take over the screaming themselves once the lights go down.

"I've watched it quite a few times, where I like to sit at the back and just watch the audience screaming and jumping," Marshall laughed. "We played it a few times in the U.K. where, literally, people were being carried out, traumatized, in tears and stuff. I just think that's great. As a horror film director, that's what you want."

"The audience was really chilly," Mendoza said of one recent screening she attended. "Everyone was moving. You could see that everybody felt completely ill."

Since any real horror fan would never dare discuss what those unfortunate women discover at the bottom of Boreham Caverns, we'll instead turn our attention to another terrifying facet of "The Descent": the fact that its concept is virtually identical to "The Cave," an already-forgotten clunker that made many critics' lists of the worst films of 2005.

"It's so amazing, because it's one of those odd things that happen repeatedly," Mendoza said of similar-timed flicks like "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" or "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano." "These films bubbled up out of different countries, different groups of people, but the story line is really quite similar."

So similar, in fact, that the "Cave" release ended up inadvertently dictating the methodical "Descent" rollout.

"We were really clever in England to move the film release forward so that we beat 'The Cave,' " Mendoza remembered. "Our release wasn't hindered by that. And I think Lionsgate has been really clever in putting the U.S. film release off, so that people could forget 'The Cave,' hopefully, and enjoy this film for what it is."

Now, the two films seem like they could be linked together as mandatory viewing for future generations of film students. With their "spelunkers under siege" concepts and "evolved cave dweller" frights, it's fascinating to watch how one director taps into such fear while the other filmmaker gets lost among the darkness.

"Neil was on such a tight budget," Mendoza said of the biggest difference. "He had to get all the storyboards so tight, and the story so tight, because he couldn't afford to waste money on unnecessary things. ... It's a great example of what is possible when money and focus go into the right areas."

You might be wondering what, exactly, all of this "Descent" fuss is about. To get you into the proper mood, this is all Mendoza recommends that you know: "[The characters have] been friends for a long time, we've gone to university together," she said. "We have these annual get-togethers where I take the girls on an expedition of some sort, some sporting event. One year, we go on this whitewater rafting trip and, devastatingly, [a character's] husband ends up being killed along with her young daughter.

"A year later, she has gone through the whole process of recovery," Mendoza added. "I put together this caving expedition, and as the film develops, this caving trip goes completely wrong. It brings out, in all of us, the inner venom."

If you're lucky, you'll be able to experience the horrors of "The Descent" before anyone violates the first rule of the film's fast-growing cult.

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