I wasn’t a huge horror movie fan growing up. Actually, I actively avoided movies like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street for fear of not being able to go to bed. I remember after the first time I saw Jeepers Creepers, I had to sleep with the lights on. The friend that I saw it with had such trouble sleeping that his mom called mine and yelled at her for letting him watch the film … we were 11.
As I grew older, my love for cinema became exponentially greater. When I was a junior in high school, I made a pact with myself that I would try and watch a movie every night. You find out quickly that if you stay away from horror, then you’re depriving yourself of some fantastic films. With that in mind, then 17 year old Andrew began working on a back catalog of horror movies.
One of those movies I missed out on when it was originally released in 2005, was The Descent. The Descent is a British horror film written and directed by Neil Marshall. The film follows six women who, having entered an unmapped cave system, become trapped and are hunted by disgusting, flesh-eating humanoids.
Unlike other horror films, The Descent is a movie so precise and cautious with its material that every moment, every suggestion or action, becomes an experience that involves us to alarming lengths. This isn’t a horror movie at all, but a human story where horrific things beyond comprehension simply happen to nice people. Neil Marshall does this by doing an incredible job of incorporating physiological drama throughout the course of The Descent. Our main protagonist, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is struggling with the loss of her husband and daughter from a car crash. She’s kind of in a lethargic state and life is a series of just going through the motions. It’s over the course of the film that she begins to realize that life moves on and inevitably, even as a broken woman, she will do whatever it takes to survive. (and overcome living in her past).
In a rather different approach, The Descent features an entirely female cast. We have Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring) Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sarah as they spelunk their way through the Appalachian Mountains. It’s great to see a cast of strong, kickass female characters in a horror movie. At no point are these women running away from the killer in their underwear. The Descent is an incredibly well acted film. You actually care for these characters and are saddened to see them go. The film’s at its strongest with the relationship between Sarah and Juno. You suspect that Juno had an affair with Sarah’s husband, and it’s made all more relevant when halfway through the film Juno exclaims that “we all lost something in that car crash.” It’s the relationships, the struggle of valuing your friends lives or yours more that’s at the root of The Descent.
Wait, I thought you said this was a horror movie?
If crawling through a hole in a cave hundreds of feet underground doesn’t freak you out enough, then maybe the flesh-eating humanoids will. The Descent can be broken up into two separate acts. Pre and Post monster revelation. Act one focuses on a lot of exposition between characters while act two is the “holy fuck, we need to get out of here now” part of the film. As for the creatures themselves? Without spoiling the physical details, they inspire another degree of thought-provoking questions. Who are they? How did they come to arrive here? Why do they essentially possess the physical traits of men and women rather than ordinary animals? The film never comes out and answers this, and that’s okay. There is simply no point in finality. The creatures exist in this reality for the sake of characters exercising their personal demons. There are some pretty gnarly deaths throughout the film as well.
The Descent is an incredibly well shot film. Neil Marshall has crafted some beautiful shots throughout the film and he does a great job at making the viewer feel claustrophobic as the characters are traversing the caves in the beginning of the movie. Marshall would go on to direct episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones and NBC’s brilliant Hannibal.
It’s the amalgamation of all these things that makes The Descent a special film. The depth of its characters, the brilliant directing that never reveals too much, until it reveals it all (akin to Jaws). The performances are stellar, the deaths gruesome, and its a movie that will have you cheering its finale.
It’s really a great fucking movie.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the late Roger Ebert’s review of The Descent. (Which he gave four stars/out of four).
The Descent” — what a great title. This British horror-thriller recalls grueling, adrenaline-pumping classics like “Deliverance,” “Jaws,” “Alien” and “Dead Calm.” It’s that good. Finally, a scary movie with teeth, not just blood and entrails — a savage and gripping piece of work that jangles your nerves without leaving your brain hanging. And so, for a change, you emerge feeling energized and exhilarated rather than enervated, or merely queasy.