The Descent (2005)

Director: Neil Marshall

Starring: Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone

Kicking things off a day late (not to worry… I’ll make up for that soon enough), I begin my horror marathon this October with an appropriately named modern classic. At a time when the “Saw” franchise was just getting underway here in the States, UK director Neil Marshall was busy concocting a less conventional, genuinely creepy horror film with a title that has a double-meaning. Just as 1982’s “The Thing” defied the traditions of the genre with an all-male cast, “The Descent” would take the opposite approach. Like all the great creature features, this movie places its protagonists in a thoroughly inescapable, claustrophobic environment against a seemingly unbeatable enemy. What helps “The Descent” stand out is that there’s more going on here than just women fighting for their lives against carnivorous beasts.

In the film’s opening minutes, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) suffers a severe trauma when she survives a car accident that claims the lives of her husband and daughter. One year later, she reunites with friends Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) for a trip to the United States and the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Joining the group on this getaway is Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), a new friend of Juno’s. Although they come prepared with plans to explore a fully mapped-out set of caves, Juno instead leads the group down an uncharted cave system, the thought being that they would be able to name these caves themselves. The trouble for Juno, Sarah, and everyone else in the group is that there’s a very good reason why no living person has ever staked a claim on this particular hole in the ground.

Because of Sarah’s state of mind, none of her friends believe her at first when she says she sees other people down in the cave with them. Eventually, it becomes apparent that they are in fact being stalked by creatures best described as Gollum-like cave trolls with no speech or sight. Like bats, they rely on sound to track their prey. There’s no telling how long they’ve made these caves their home, only that the piles of bones indicate that many humans and animals have had the misfortune of entering their domain.

It is the fragility of Sarah’s sanity that drives this picture, and also lends to that double-meaning I brought up. “The Descent” refers both to the group’s travels deeper and deeper into the caves, and also to Sarah’s downward spiral into madness. The accidental death of Beth is the event that provides the tipping point. There is also a recurring vision that Sarah keeps having, involving her dead daughter and a birthday cake.

Reminding me a little of the best parts of “Alien,” my favorite thing about “The Descent” is that much of the action is shrouded in darkness. Foregoing “Hollywood lighting,” Neil Marshall elected to film his movie in almost total darkness, the only light sources coming from the lights on the ladies’ helmets, as well as from the infrared camera and the flares they carry with them. I also like the tension that comes with scenes where the characters are forced to cross from one tunnel to the next over deep chasms, every second carrying with it the possibility that one of them might fall to her death.

When the movie originally hit theaters, you got a different ending depending on whether you lived in the US or the UK. The edited version in the US defeats the message the movie is trying to get across. On DVD, the Unrated Cut restored Neil Marshall’s original ending. I feel fortunate that this is the only version of the film I have ever seen. Despite how overwhelmed I was by the absolute balls it took for Pascal Laugier to come up with “Martyrs,” I find “The Descent” to be the most impressive horror film of the 2000’s. Like most horror movies, there are moments of sheer absurdity, but the interesting narrative, the frightening creatures, and most especially the brilliant cinematography make all the difference. You could say these qualities help the film “ascend.”

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Wow! You certainly don’t write about this movie like a guy who was just seriously ill and in the hospital for five days! I am especially impressed by your superior composition which definitely makes your case for “The Descent” as the best horror movie of the 2000’s.

  2. mikedonlon01 says:

    666 words. Nice. intentional? Great blog. I’m watching 31 horror films this month as well (31horrorfilms). If you had to give me one horror film not to miss, what would it be?

    • 666 words? Ha! I hadn’t even noticed that! So, no, definitely not intentional. One film not to miss? That is a GOOD question. I would only be guessing at the kind of films you’ve seen already, but I will go ahead and throw in the name of “Suspiria,” Dario Argento’s story about a witches’ coven inside a ballet school. I’ll be reviewing that one on Oct. 30th… otherwise known as “Devil’s Night.”

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