Production Company: Celador Films, Northmen Productions, Pathe
Starring: Shauna McDonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid
Release Date: July 8, 2005 (UK), August 4, 2006 (US)
Runtime: 99 minutes
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat; The Descent is one of the best pure horror movies of the last 15 years, despite the fact that as of 2015, it is now a decade old. Directed by Neil Marshall (who directed the equally impressive werewolf-siege movie Dog Soldiers and the wonderfully over-the-top apocalyptic romp Doomsday), The Descent is gory without being gratuitous, frightening without resorting to cheap shocks, believable despite the fact that it is a monster movie, and just plain well written and acted, even though the cast is made up almost entirely of previously unknown actresses (it is an almost all female cast). Though the movie begins on a slow burn, this is due to honest to goodness character development, a term otherwise sadly alien to the genre. Oh, and just to be perfectly clear, this movie has nothing to do with The Descent, the great 1999 novel by Jeff Long.
The movie starts out innocuously enough, with our intrepid heroines at the end of a white-water rafting trip. This scene established who our main characters are; a group of mostly British grrl power adrenaline junkies who spend their weekends seeking thrills in the wilderness. Then tragedy strikes, though not in the way that you would expect; the movie jumps in with the shock and horror without so much as a “by-your-leave”. Fast forward to a year later, with the original ladies (plus a few new faces) on an Appalachian spelunking trip, the first time they’ve all been back together since the horrible things that happened the year before.
Our main protagonist is Sarah (played by Shauna McDonald), who is insisting on going on the trip in an attempt to take her life back after last year’s tragedy. Her best friend is Beth (played by Alex Reid), who has qualms about the trip, trying to protect Sarah, who took the brunt of the last trip’s tragedy. Juno (played by the stunning Natalie Jackson Mendoza) is the final member of last year’s disaster, a complex character who is fearless in the face of danger but cowardly when it comes to emotions. Though she is the first to throw herself into danger, she fled in the face of Sarah’s suffering, leaving Beth to take care of their friend on her own.
Juno has planned this year’s trip as an attempt to save their friendship, hoping that they will be able to re-bond during their caving adventure. Joining them are three newbies, mutual friends of Juno’s but strangers to Sarah and Beth. The three newcomers are Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), a Scandinavian professional rock climber who is friends with Juno, her younger sister Sam (MyAnna Buring) who is a med-school student, and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) who is a wild-child BASE jumper and Juno’s “protégé”.
After some brief introductions and alcohol-induced bonding (get your mind out of the gutter), the girls strap on their gear and head into the caves. Holly’s worries that the caves would be too easy prove unfounded when a cave-in forces Juno to admit a bit of a shocking revelation; these are not the caves for which they have maps and brochures, but rather a newly discovered series of caves. She had thought she would surprise them with this revelation later, thinking they would be excited when they realized that they were the first ones ever to explore them. They are surprised all right: surprisingly enough, the entrance they came in through is now blocked, they know of no other entrances or exits, no one knows where they are, and the only way to go is down, in hopes they will find another tunnel that surfaces somewhere else.
This in and of itself would make for a tense and exciting thriller. The next bit of the film is a claustrophobic nightmare of dead ends, plunging chasms, broken bones and smothering darkness. At one point they are forced to make a harrowing spider-climb across a ceiling with a fathomless pit beneath their feet, hanging from clamps and puny-looking metal hooks they’ve set into the tunnel roof, when they make a chilling discovery; there are already clamps and hooks there, seemingly set at least a hundred years before based on their antiquity. This tells them that someone has been here before, long ago, which is a bad thing: if someone had explored these caves and survived, they wouldn’t be previously unknown, would they? Which means that whoever was here a hundred years ago never made it back to the surface. With no other options, they continue forward.
Soon it becomes obvious that they are not alone in the bowels of the earth, as they begin to see movement out of the corner of their eyes and hear noises that they didn’t make. This is when things get really nasty, and the real fun begins for us sadistic viewers. And when the hammer suddenly drops, the shocks don’t stop until the credits role. Not since the original Alien has there been a more claustrophobic horror movie. Not only are the ladies being picked off in the darkness one by one by a race of blind, albino flesh eaters, but they are realizing how fragile friendship and loyalty can be when faced with death in the dark.
Pushed forward by the creatures striking from the shadows and being ripped apart by betrayals from within their group, the remainder of the films grabs you by the guts and twists as you watch characters that you’ve come to like faced with death from all sides. The best part is that all of it is believable. The origins of the creatures are only hinted at, but are chillingly feasible. These beings have a well-developed history and ecology, when most horror movies don’t bother to explain how their monsters are feasible, because they are, after all, monsters.
The characters themselves and their motivations are also believable, so that though you may curse some of them for their human frailties, there is never a moment that you doubt it. There are no moments where, for example, one of the girls decides to go off into the darkness alone to use the bathroom, or look for a cat, or any of that nonsense. When the group begins to unravel it is due to blind panic and cowardly self-preservation, not stupidity. The gore, though in some scenes shocking, visceral, and prolific, is never gratuitous or unnecessary, even when it is turning your stomach. And the shock and horror doesn’t stop, never pulling you back from the brink until the tale is done. There are violent shocks, gut-tightening creep-outs, and squirm inducing moments of almost unbearable tension, as well as a few great “did I just see that shit, or was it my imagination” scenes as the plot is building. This film really has it all.
Neil Marshall wrote and directed the film, and is rightly acknowledged as being responsible for the re-birth of British horror (though I’d add Danny Boyle to that equation as well for the incredible 28 Days Later). Between this and Dog Soldiers (which is, hands down, the best werewolf movie of all time), Marshall has proven that with a talented director, some excellent writing, and a commitment to establishing a believable and creepy atmosphere, the best horror movies can be created with only a fraction of the budget that Hollywood is throwing at the crappy special-effects driven garbage that passes for horror movies in the U.S. right now. What I wouldn’t give for Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson to get back into the genre.
In the last ten years, certain images from this film have proven themselves truly iconic, especially the scene in the Dwellers’ refuse pit. One of the best sequences in the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider video game series blatantly and effectively rips off this sequence, and then proves that the designers are fans of the film by turning Laura’s climbing axe into a melee weapon in a way that will make fans of the movie unerringly think of Juno.
Unfortunately, Neil Marshall hasn’t done a horror movie since 2008’s Doomsday, though he has directed a few episodes of the television’s Constantine, as well as some of the best episodes of a little show called Game of Thrones, proving that he still has what it takes.
Bottom line: see it. Obviously the film isn’t for the squeamish or the easily shaken… but then, if you are either of these things what are you doing reading a review at a horror website anyway? The Descent is simply one of the best horror movies of all time, and Neil Marshall a true visionary of the genre.
Oh, and by the way… there is a sequel out there, called, quite cleverly, The Descent 2. Stay far, far away from this film if you are a fan of the original and thin skinned. You have been warned.