Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
Every movie viewer has holes in his or her viewing history. For me, the 1001 Movies list and then the various Oscar lists have been about closing as many of those holes as possible. It’s the same with the horror lists that I’m slowly getting through. Some of those gaps are more embarrassing than others. With horror films, The Descent has been a noticeable lacuna for the past decade. There’s a reason for this: despite my having owned a copy of the film for some time, I’ve been a little afraid to pop it into the player. I have claustrophobic tendencies, and watching people lost underground for an hour and a half put me on edge.
But, it’s one I’ve been intending to watch for a long time, and tonight I finally got the chance and also finally worked up the nerve. It was my intent to watch this at the end of last year, and then again last month, but here I finally am. And really, The Descent is pretty much everything I was told it was. This is a brutally scary film, one that certainly uses the conventions of the jump scare and a little bit of gore to good effect, but like the best of horror films, it doesn’t rely on them. This is a smart film, and the fact that it’s smart is one of the main reasons it works as well as it does.
We start with a fairly idyllic nature outing of friends whitewater rafting. Soon after, and after we see what looks like the husband of Sarah (Shauna Mcdonald) getting a little too close to Juno (Natalie Mendoza), everyone goes their separate ways. Moments later, a car accident puts Sarah in the hospital and kills both her husband and daughter.
Flash forward a year, and we’ve got another outing, with a recovered Sarah still grieving for her lost family. But this outing, a cave exploring expedition in North Carolina, is in part a way for this group of women to reconnect and (it is hoped) to help Sarah heal. In addition to Sarah and Juno, we have Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Beth (Alex Reid), and newcomer Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), a new friend of Juno’s.
Of the half dozen women go into the caves, and everything is a light-hearted adventure until a couple of important events happen. The first is that Sarah gets temporarily trapped, and when Juno pulls her out, a cave-in blocks their path back. Second is Juno’s admission that they are in an unknown cave complex, one that hasn’t been explored. It was her goal to be the first to explore the new cave complex, and thus give the group the right to name it.
Ah, but The Descent isn’t a “group of people trapped in a terrible situation” movie. No, it’s a “group of people trapped in the company of hideous flesh-eating creatures” movie. Yep, the caves are inhabited by blind, albino humanoids that appear to hunt by sound and who aren’t at all averse to adding a little fresh spelunker meat to their menu. We spend about 40 minutes getting the women trapped in the cave, about 15 minutes of them trying logically to find a different path out, and the final 45 minutes of run time in a terrifying life-or-death struggle with pure-white Nosferatu-looking crawlers illuminated only with torches, headlamps, glowsticks, and the occasional flare.
There’s a lot that The Descent gets right. First, it makes real characters out of its cast. The stereotype with a horror movie is to make the women victims until one of them final-girls the ending by learning to fight back. Not so here. The women in The Descent are not so easily stereotyped. Don’t get me wrong—this is not a “grrl power” film any more than it is a “damsel in distress” film. There’s real effort made to make these characters real, even if we don’t really get to know some of them very well in the time we’re given.
I also really like the pacing. While we get a pretty brutal car accident in the first few minutes, there is nothing even remotely supernatural or monster-related for the first half of the film. There’s a good, slow build, giving us a little time to get to know the six women a little, get them trapped, and then the film drops the horror hammer.
There was also a real temptation here I would think to make this a found footage film, and there’s a little bit of that going on here that we see through the infrared filter of a hand-held video camera. But this is not a found footage film and that works to its benefit. Neil Marshall manages to use it sparingly and well, and instead uses his cameras to further disorient the audience, create claustrophobia, and genuinely make us feel that we don’t know what is around each corner.
So, final analysis, The Descent is as good as I was hoping. It’s not one I’ll watch often because of my own claustrophobic tendencies, but I’m happy I finally got around to it.
Why to watch The Descent: Really great horror movies are few and far between and should be embraced.
Why not to watch: Claustrophobia.