Review: “The Descent” (2005)

“Things that go bump in the night” has to be one of the oldest tricks in the Manual of Horror Movie Scare Tactics. The same goes for ye olde “trap some humans in a dark, leaky enclosed space with some heinous creatures and watch them plummet to the bottom of the food chain” maneuver and the “overconfident shepherd will lead the flock astray” bit — they’re coated in cobwebs. But when all three are done right, complaints about formulas get drowned out by shrieking. And Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” gets these approaches very right.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and filmed in the U.K., “The Descent” is one whopper of a smashing horror film. If Marshall merely introduced the characters, then put them through seven circles of hell, “The Descent” might qualify as a solid effort. But this director goes a few better, crafting a scarefest that also works splendidly as a psychological thriller, an action film and even a character study. Marshall skips from one genre to the next with ease, flair and a fine attention to detail (the caves’ hostile darkness almost deserves to be included in the cast list). If there is a nagging flaw, it may be the meet-and-greet. These “forced bonding” scenes are so pared-down they barely manage to set the tone, and they distinguish only a few women from the pack. One of the standouts is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), traumatized by the car crash that killed her husband (Oliver Milburn) and daughter (Molly Kayll) a year before. She has agreed to accompany her best friend Beth (Alex Reid) on a spelunking trip in the Appalachians. They reunite with friends Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza, lean and mean), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) at Juno’s isolated cabin. Joining the group is Juno’s new adrenaline-loving friend Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). The plan is to navigate some fully explored caves nearby — a way to take Sarah’s mind off the tragedy in her past.

Remember the “flock astray” approach mentioned earlier? This is where it crops up: Juno, bored by the thought of going where thousands have gone before, deviates from the plan she laid out (to anyone who could rescue the group, naturally) and takes them into a series of unexplored caves. Marshall, in the buildup to the certain dangers lurking in the caves’ hidden nooks and crannies, does not rush to flood the screen with blood and viscera. He lets the well-designed set and lighting do the dirty work of ratcheting up the unease with nary a sound, and little blood (initially). Then again, there’s something so elementally frightening about cramped, dank spaces — spaces unseen and untouched by man and inhabited by who-knows-what? — that needs no words. Sarah narrowly avoids a cave-in that traps the women and forces Juno to confess. The discovery of old climbing equipment and cave paintings lead the women to believe there could be an alternate escape route. But “The Descent” wouldn’t be a horror movie worth its blood if the trip out wasn’t twice as treacherous as the journey in. What happens is best left observed and not explained, except to say that Sarah is convinced that while the group may be dreadfully lost in the caves, they are not alone. Before the action-loaded bloodbath begins, it’s Sarah’s mounting uncertainty coupled with all the little missteps and faint noises and bone fragments that bit by bit toy with our minds.

The second act of “The Descent,” while markedly different than the first, is no less effective. Now that he’s unspooled our nerves, Marshall lets rip vicious action sequences galore and swimming pools of blood, bone, tissue and more — enough to satiate hardcore gore enthusiasts and gross out everyone else. “The Descent” keeps the tension and horror quotient high up to the final minutes, when Marshall eases on the throttle perhaps a little too much (one could argue the end mirrors our own wrung-out exhaustion). But images of what’s happened linger unpleasantly, and the quiet lets the plights of Juno — too complex to be a flat-out villain — and Sarah — too complex to be an out-and-out angel — sink deep. That’s when the real damage gets done.

Grade: A-

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11 Responses

  1. This was such a sneakily great flick. Honestly, that near-cave-in incident was probably the most terrifying part (even taking into consideration the freaky creatures that come later). The trend of movies building on very human-nature fears like this one or Open Water or – though I haven’t seen it yet – that new movie Frozen with the people trapped on a chairlift are definitely haunting in ways that “gotcha!” tactics can never be. Well done on this write-up!

  2. The best scary movie change the monster every 20 minutes or so (i.e. Jaws: swimming girl above water, shadow, fin, shark). Very few have been doing that lately, but The Descenet is so fabulous in that it moves from dark to claustrophobia to bat/mole monster to, like, blood pool.

    So so good.

  3. I certainly thought it was great (http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/1964). Indeed, I thought it was so great there was only one better film during the last decade better than it in the horror genre (if you can call the other film in question a horror film!).

    I enjoyed Dog Soldiers but Marshall improves here – he uses the location so well – the claustrophobia present is almost tangible. I also think the characters are great – they aren’t cardboard cut out two-dimensional nobodies. There’s substance there and Marshall’s antagonistic dynamic between the main two women adds yet more to the film. Plus, I love all the horror film references. At times it felt derivative in Dog Soldiers, not so here.

    Shame he followed it up with the poor Escape From New York knock-off Doomsday.

  4. Did see the same movie? When I saw the movie for my Creep-A-Thon, I hated it. The first half of the movie was boring and second half was okay.

  5. The meet-and-great scenes didn’t work for me as well. It felt like I was watching a really stupid American mainstream horror flick. But it more than redeems itself with those really scary enclosed spaces and what we could hear but not necessarily see. I kept imagining myself being in the characters’ situations and I couldn’t stop thinking about it after.

    This is one of those horror movies that is great watching with as many people/scaredy-cats as possible.

  6. I liked this movie when it was just them exploring the cave and trying to escape it. As you said in your review, this is a primal fear and one the filmmakers use to pure perfection. However, as soon as the Morlocks showed up I found the movie to really lose its inventiveness and appeal. Still, the characters are surprisingly well developed, and the overall sense of unease that the movie conveys is undeniable.

    • @ Luke — I nearly needed a change of clothes after that part.

      @ FRC — You bring up something I hadn’t considered, but you’re right. That’s the secret to “The Descent”: you get a different monster every so often. There’s something different to fear, and that keeps the nerves unsettled (well, mine, anyway).

      @ Dan — I heard there were similarities to “Dog Soldiers” — I’ll have to see that one and compare the two. I love how Natalie Mendoza Jackson’s character can’t be pinned down — her motives are so … un-pin-downable (yup, I made that up). And Sarah, dear God — I didn’t see that coming, but it makes sense that she has nothing left to lose.

      @ Branden — Did your movie have things in it that looked like Gollem? If so, we saw the same film. Probably you’ve seen many more horror flicks than I have; I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on the genre. But I thought the setup — particularly the way Marshall handled the lighting in the caves, and the set design — was marvelous. I’ve always believed the dark is much scarier than what’s in it, and to me that’s what the first half of the film is about. The second half really is what happens when characters descend into hell.

      @ Franz — The meet-and-greet is one of the things I DIDN’T like — it was just too tightly edited. There was a lot of chatter and not much distinction drawn among the characters. The very first scenes, however, pretty much knocked me breathless. It’s a hell of a way to start a movie, much less end one!

      @ Unruly — I’ll admit the creep factor turns to gore once the Things That Go Bump show up. But I was still scared sh*tless, and the amount of gore took me aback. It might have something to do with the fact that fear of the dark has been a weakness of mine since childhood.

  7. I found the jumpscares on the front end of this film a bit too grating, but once in the cave this is easily one of the best horror flicks of the last decade.

    I also think what works so well is how the film explores gender issues throughout the film.

  8. What an ending.

    I was really surprised how deep the feelings of betrayal and jealousy were put into the narrative. The film really earns its status as it comes to its conclusion.

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