Monday, February 22, 2016

Off Script: The Descent

Film: The Descent
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.


  1. I'm curious as to what your stress levels were really like while you were watching this film (not asking for an oscillograph reading!). I'm not claustrophobic, so I admit it's hard for me to understand this particular fear (I am, however, somewhat acrophobic, as most sane human beings should be, dammit). I'm guessing you didn't suffer any cave-inspired panic attacks while the movie's plot unfurled before you, but I'd also like to know more about how the movie was, as you wrote, "brutally scary."

    Most horror movies just make me laugh these days, but I'm up for a good scare if this movie really does bring the screams. Carolina Nosferatus. Now there's a weird concept. And a potential band name.

    1. For me, the single scariest part of the film was Sarah being caught at one point. I won't say that I started hyperventilating, but I did stand up and walk around for a few minutes. That scene goes on a little too long for me.

      For me, a good horror movie is scary in the moment. Not many manage to scare me much after the credits. I see them like roller coasters--a great adrenaline rush. There are some solid scares in The Descent, but it mainly works because it builds for an hour and then moves relentlessly and because the way in which what we see is limited is done smartly (rather than just giving us extreme close-ups). It's a smart movie--even the jump scares don't come constantly. There are plenty of places I expected a sudden shock and got nothing because once those have been established, they aren't overused.

  2. I liked The Descent quite a bit, which is why I tried to put it on your movie list. I first watched it because I had heard there was some controversy, or rather heated disagreements, over how women are depicted in the movie - is it pro-women or anti-women.


    The pro camp pointed out how they were all strong, capable women who problem-solved and fought back. The anti camp pointed out how at a certain point they turn on each other and claimed if it was male characters that wouldn't have been shown. Just as an aside, I mentioned this to a female co-worker and her response, in a bitter voice, was that a bunch of women turning on each other sounded pretty realistic to her.

    But in regards to male characters not being shown in that kind of negative light I think the anti camp was wrong. There are any number of films where guys in bad situations turn on each other or betray each other.

    Ultimately, while I can understand where the anti argument comes from I fall more on the pro side.

    Different note, but also a spoiler. I'm not sure which version of the film was on your DVD. In either case there should be an alternate ending in the extras. The "real" ending is the last woman getting out, then we see it's only in her head and she's actually still trapped underground, apparently insane. The other ending is just her getting out. And apparently there was a sequel made, working from the more positive ending. I have not seen it.

    1. I watched the "uncut" version which includes the first of the possibilities you mention here. I think it's a solid ending.

      I also tend to side with the "pro-woman" camp on this. These are not stereotype horror movie women, but they're also not the other stereotype of just being men with breasts. I thought they came off pretty real. And, as I read through your first paragraph under the spoiler warning, I had exactly the thought you express in the second paragraph. I agree completely.

    2. I realized I never mentioned which ending I saw and preferred. It was the "uncut one".

  3. The scariest/best movie I've seen in years is Room on so many levels with reverse claustrophobia coming into play in a big way.

    1. It's on the list--one I'm looking forward to seeing.

  4. I've gone on for years saying how much I dislike this movie. I've given it multiple chances, and it has only grown on me enough to give it an 'eh'. I have real issues with this movie. The first half of the movie, before the Gollums show up, is actually pretty tense. When the movie plays with claustrophobia, the movie is pretty tense (however, these scenes do not stand up to repeated viewings). The movie then begins to fail completely once the Gollums are introduced. It then just becomes a stupid monster movie. And I obviously have nothing against monster movies, but this one just puts me off for some reason. Perhaps it's because it has such a solid first half that the second half devolves into something it shouldn't have been. It could also be that so many people rave about this movie that it makes me dislike it even more just on principle because, really, I don't think it's *that* great as it is made out to be.

    1. I enjoyed it, although I do think the "we're lost/claustrophobia" elements of it are better than the monster elements. Still, I liked the whole thing.