One of my favorite horror movies of all time is Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent. Like Pitch Black, The Descent proves that a movie doesn’t need a complicated plot to be completely fantastic. The movie is about six cool athletic chicks that go spelunking, get trapped, and subsequently eaten by mutant cave people. That’s about as straightforward as a horror movie can get and I admit that I wasn’t too impressed by the concept the first time I saw the trailer. Upon closer examination, however, The Descent also proves that first impressions can be deceiving.
In the first three scenes, The Descent reveals that it’s more than just a well-made horror flick and Marshall shows the audience everything they need to know about the movie – all without voiceover narration, excessive dialog, or even a lot of action. This demonstrates that the best movies do not tell the audience what’s happening, they show it. The first 5 minutes and 45 seconds of the film establishes four important things; A) It establishes Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) as the main character, B) it shows her relationship with her two best friends, Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid), C) it suggests that there is something more to Juno and Paul’s (Sam’s husband) relationship that meets the eye, and D) sets the tone for the entire movie – The Descent is dark and gory, but it creates suspense not only with the creepy cave monsters but also through darkness, negative space, and an extremely effective use of the anxiety naturally associated with extreme sports (whitewater rafting, spelunking, and rock climbing). It’s rare for any movie to achieve this level of storytelling efficiency and it allows the movie to transition seamlessly into the main action of the film – one year later, the women are reuniting for a vacation in the American Appalachian Mountains.
I’m not sure why Neil Marshall chose to set the movie in the Appalachians, but I think it was an extremely good decision – because everybody knows that NOTHING good EVER happens in the Appalachian Mountains. You’ll either get raped by inbred rednecks (ala James Dickey and John Boorman’s Deliverance, which The Descent alludes to with the banjo music playing on the radio) or travel through some sort of temporal warp and get trapped in a nightmare town plagued by freaky ghosts and/or demons (ala Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Propecies). Now you can add ‘mutant flesh-eating cave people’ to the list of reasons why you should NEVER, under any circumstances, visit the Appalachian Mountains.
The Descent is about three things: the literal descent into the cave system, the descent into insanity and madness, and the descent into the darker, more primal side of humanity.
The Descent into the Cave – the audience already knows what is going to happen before the movie begins. The women are in going to go spelunking in the Boreham Caves (which to my knowledge is actually not located in the USA), a well-charted, grade two cave system that is completely safe. They have followed all of the correct safety precautions, filed a flight plan with Mountain Rescue, and have more than enough gear (including ice picks – not necessarily the first tool I would choose to bring with me while spelunking, but they definitely come in handy later). However, all of these steps turn out to be worthless when they find out that Juno has not brought them to Boreham Caves but to a new, uncharted cave system. Leave it to the only American to screw things up. Juno’s decision, while unforgivably stupid, is a little less arbitrary in light of her relationship with Sarah. Their friendship has suffered over the year since Sarah’s family died and Juno clearly has a lot of guilt about leaving so soon after the accident and for her relationship with Sarah’s husband.
The great thing about The Descent is that the movie is extremely scary even before the monsters start eating people. In fact, the monsters don’t even come out until 50 minutes into the film, which is more than halfway through the movie. This works to the film’s advantage, the most nerve-wracking moments actually have nothing to do with the monsters. Thanks to some excellent cinematography and directing, The Descent interprets the dark, claustrophobic environment of a cave extremely realistically. Throughout the film, most of the screen is dark, the negative space interrupted only by feeble headlights and flashlights placed in the corners of the frame. The women also use glow sticks and flares, which allows Marshall to light them in all green or all red and give the scenes are more eerie appearance. Most of the camera angles are close ups and Marshall puts the camera right in the women’s faces, pulling it in front of the women as they crawl through narrow tunnels or placing it directly above or below them as they climb across things. This makes the cave system seem extremely tight and claustrophobic as well as unbearably cavernous and dark. The result is, needless to say, uncomfortable to watch and the audience is already afraid for the characters even before the monsters come out. Personally, I find it very scary to watch them inch their way through tight cracks in the rocks or climb across a wet rock ceiling with three cams and one 100-year-old piton, but this might just be because I have done both rock climbing and spelunking.
The monsters themselves aren’t extremely scary; it’s only when they are hidden in the dark that they have the ability to frighten. This is probably because they bear an unfortunate resemblance to Schmiegel. However, I am a big fan of latex and other ‘old-fashioned’ special effects techniques, so I was extremely pleased that Marshall avoided using CGI to create the monsters. The Descent was rushed through post-production to beat other, similar films to the theaters, and the few FX shots are disappointingly fake (such as the bats flying out of the cave). When the monsters do come out, the movie switches gears from being a suspenseful thriller to a classic gore fest – ice picks through the neck, bludgeoning heads with rocks, and gutting terrified women to death.
The Descent into Madness – Throughout the movie, Sarah is trying to cope with the death of her husband and daughter. The sequence when she runs down the darkened hospital corridor and her nightmares about dying in the car crash with her family show that she still has a lot of emotional issues to work through and set a dark tone for the movie from the very beginning. Once the women enter the cave, Sarah starts hearing the ghostly laughter of her daughter in the dark passageways, a technique that lures Sarah (and the audience) away from the other women as she attempts to discover the source of the sounds. Because the audience already knows what is waiting for the women behind the darkness, this is a good way to build tension in the audience that is a little more subtle than drooling, Schmiegel look-alikes. The repeated use of the birthday cake as a transition between action sequences also helps remind the audience that Sarah is dealing with more than just mutant cave monsters.
The Descent into the Primeval – The movie touches on two of the most basic primal instincts – survival and revenge. The women come to want their friends to scream in order to attract the attention of the monsters and many have no qualms leaving each other behind if it will increase their chases of survival. Once her friends start getting picked off, Sarah needs to increasingly rely on her primitive instincts in order to survive. Separated from her friends, Sarah transforms from a terrified woman cowering in a corner with a camcorder into a cold, aggressive hunter who quickly slaughters any monster she comes across with whatever weapon she can find (a rock, a bone, her thumbs). Marshall demonstrates this transformation visually; Sarah enters the cave clean, pretty, and blond. She leaves it covered in blood and wild-eyed. I’d also like to take this moment to point out that Shauna Macdonald is one of the few women who can look infinitely more beautiful and attractive covered in blood and ripped spandex.
Sarah’s descent into the primitive, survival-oriented part of her personality also facilitates her choice to seek revenge. Sarah finds her friend Beth wounded and dying in a cave. Juno had accidentally punctured her neck with an ice pick and, horrified, left her to bleed to death on the ground. Beth tells Sarah not to trust Juno and also gives her Juno’s trademark necklace…which turns out to have been a gift from Paul, Sarah’s dead husband. Now knowing about their affair, Sarah reunites with Juno only to cripple her and leave her in the cave as bait for the monsters while Sarah tries to find a way to escape.
It seems that quite a few people dislike the final scenes, where Sarah crawls her way up a staircase of bones illuminated by a thin beam of white light and, gasping, reemerges into daylight. However, if you view the scene in the context of three themes I discussed above, I think it is actually quite successful. The staircase has nothing to do with resurrection or redemption or God or Lazarus or whatever other pseudo-religious connotations you can think up. I think it’s a visual representation of Sarah crawling herself out of the dark, terrifying place that she has fallen into – literally, out of the cave but also figuratively out of the primitive part of her personality and out of insanity.
The Descent has two different endings. When I first saw it in theaters, the movie ended with Sarah, who has driven away from the cave, stopping the car, vomiting, and then seeing the ghostly image of Juno in the passenger seat. The ending on the DVD adds in an additional scene: knocked unconscious, Sarah only imagined escaping the cave. She regains consciousness and sits across from her daughter and the birthday cake. Marshall pulls back the camera and reveals that Sarah is actually alone, still trapped in the cave, and presumably completely insane. I don’t really prefer one ending over the other, I think that either one works. If Sarah has escaped the cave, then she is still going to be haunted by her experiences (guess she wasn’t able to climb out of madness after all). If Sarah is still trapped in the cave, then her descent is likely permanent, she’s stuck in the cave and absolutely crazy.
The Descent isn’t perfect; it’s got some less-than-impressive CGI, the Schmiegel look-alike monsters aren’t too scary when you can actually see them, and most of the characters (except Sarah and Juno) aren’t really developed very fully. However, I have to point out that in horror flicks most of the characters don’t need rich characterization because their sole reason for existence is to be torn apart in some nasty, bloody way.The movie also makes use of a hand held camcorder with infrared. I’m not a big fan of the use of camcorders in movies, it seems like a rather transparent ploy to make a film look more ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic.’ Thankfully, The Descent doesn’t use the camcorder too much and thus avoids seeming gimmicky.
Even though it won’t haunt you for weeks or even days afterward, The Descent is a fantastic, well-made, and genuinely creepy horror film. Besides, you’ve got to respect a horror movie with an ENTIRELY female cast (the one and only man dies in the first 5 minutes) and then decides to dress them in spandex. Well done, Neil Marshall, well done indeed.