Descent

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Spelunking into the heart of fear: Darkness and Death in The Descent

Oct 17, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Winding caverns, darkness, blood, and women

Cons:A stupid American edit

The Bottom Line: Turn the lights out and let the darkness overwhelm you. It's a frightening film worth taking the time for.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

One of the biggest challenges a fan of horror films faces is finding films that are actually good. There is so much junk produced and released that the task of finding a film of quality can be somewhat daunting. Which is why when I find a horror film that is quality, I can’t wait to share the news with other lovers of horror.

The Descent is one of the films worth sharing.

The last time Neil Marshall, the writer and director of The Descent, came to horror fans’ attention was with his 2002 werewolf flick Dog Soldiers. A smart, action filled film Dog Soldiers garnered Marshall international attention and, among horror fans at least, The Descent was highly anticipated. I know that in my circle, whenever I mentioned the film and that Neil Marshall was directing it my friends all became very excited.

Dog Soldiers itself is an excellent film. It follows a group of British Soldiers dispatched to the wilderness for what they think is a series of war games. When the blood and intestines start flowing they realize that something is very wrong.

The Descent and Dog Soldiers serve as interesting counterparts. Both written and directed by Marshall and shot by cinematographer Sam McCurdy, the films parallel each other in structure and execution. Where Dog Soldiers follows a group of male soldiers facing werewolves, The Descent follows a group of female friends facing what Marshall calls “crawlers”. In both films, the relationships and interactions of the characters are what make them so effective.

The protagonist of The Descent, Sarah, has gathered with her friends in the Appalachian mountains for an adventure intended to help her move on from a recent tragedy. They plan to explore a local system of caves in what is supposed to be an exercise of female bonding and a reconnection of their friendships. Juno, the coordinator of the trip, leads them through the woods to the cave’s entrance. While the trip begins smoothly enough, the girls soon realize that Juno has led them astray. As their lights begin to go out they must not only face one another, they must face a terror that lives in the darkness around them.

The Descent manages to instill fear in such an effective way that I left the theater feeling genuinely shaken. McCurdy takes advantage of the underground setting and minimal lights to let the darkness speak. In many shots a majority of the frame will be black, the angle will be disorienting, and you may not be sure of what exactly it is that you are seeing. The cinematography itself is claustrophobic, magnificently bringing to life the feeling of being there in those caves with those characters.

Now as far as character development goes, I must say that while I got a feel for some of the girls Marshall did a better job with the men of Dog Soldiers. A couple of the girls are more or less interchangeable and I wish they had taken a little more time in developing them. That being said, their friendship was believable and I mention the lack of development as more of a side note than a real complaint.

Marshall and McCurdy masterfully utilize the psychology of the horror film to exploit the elemental fears that we all share. The claustrophobia is only one of the elements they use. As the girls start to die, they begin to breakdown. They are so far from the reach of civilization that their only way to survive is to turn to their animal sides. The group goes through a complete collapse and I found this deterioration, combined with the darkness, to be what made this film so frightening. It wasn’t the crawlers, which as monsters go were decent but nothing too incredibly fear evoking, it was the idea of being trapped in these caves with people who are no longer the friends that you thought you knew.

Spelunking is as much about trust as it as about adventure. And when that trust breaks down in a situation where you have no escape, the monsters are almost unnecessary. In The Descent it becomes a game of which is worse, the crawlers tearing you apart or the best friend that you no longer know.

The discussion can of course also continue, exploring more how Freud’s theories come into play, developing arguments about gender roles, the list goes on. The film is rich in intellectual fodder. If I were still at school I would almost certainly be writing an academic paper along those lines. But I’m not and this is a review not a thesis.

So I’ll leave you with this. If you’re looking for a film that does more than just make you jump when the bad guy, surprise, comes around the corner, I highly recommend The Descent. Don’t look for the monsters to be the source of the horror, we ourselves are much more frightening creatures.

Ah, and I almost forgot to mention. The US theatrical release has an edited ending. And it’s completely stupid. If you’re watching the film in a US theater, go look for the original ending online when you get home. It makes much more sense and left me feeling much more satisfied. I don’t know what other changes may have been made for the US release but the original cut is definitely worth looking for.


Recommend this product? Yes


Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening

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