“A caving expedition goes horribly wrong, as the explorers become trapped and ultimately pursued by a strange breed of predators.” — IMDb
I was a big fan of this one. Amazingly, The Descent was one of those films that I had heard about for years but hadn’t seen until a few weeks ago. I don’t know if I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to the hype or what, but… it did. It definitely did.
Written and directed by Neil Marshall, who broke onto the scene with his horror comedy Dog Soldiers, it did amazingly well at the box office despite taking a hit due to its release coinciding with the 2005 London bombings. Turns out having posters that read “Outright terror… bold and brilliant” on the walls of the subway doesn’t go over so well when over 50 people died over the span of multiple terrorist attacks utilizing the public transport system during rush hour. Ooof.
The story follows a group of six women who gather at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina for a sort of reunion weekend. The main character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) had suffered a huge loss with the tragic death of both her husband and daughter the year prior, so it’s a very emotional trip for her. They all plan to head down into a nearby underground cave for a self-led expedition and all is going well until one of the passageways crashes down behind them and the leader of the group, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), admits that they are not in the fully explored cave system she had promised them, but a completely new system that had yet to explored or mapped. Things only get worse when they realize they aren’t alone down there…
Honestly, while I was psyched to see an all-female cast, I wasn’t a HUGE fan of the acting. I just felt like I didn’t form an attachment to really any of the characters, which was a shame. I also didn’t really see the purpose in the car accident killing Sarah’s husband and daughter. Her visual and auditory hallucinations of her daughter while in the caves definitely aided in her going further through her own psychological maze, but it was a scary enough movie without the semi-paranormal aspect, I thought.
THAT BEING SAID, pretty much anything could have happened in those caves and I would have been scared as hell. I’m super impressed that the caves they shot in were simply a set and not actual caves… they looked incredible. They paid attention to use just available light as much as possible and it really lent a sort of otherworldly feel to many scenes as us viewers are seeing their expedition either via night vision camera, a wash of green from the glowsticks, or lit by these bright red flares, shadows abounding.
The feel of the movie is claustrophobic in the best, most terrifying way. Again, regardless of what else is happening, I was feeling panicky just watching them wriggle on their stomachs through passageways just barely big enough for their bodies. It’s the whole idea that if anything does start pursuing you, or anything goes terribly wrong, you’re stuck. The way back is caved in, the tunnels are narrow, you are UNDERGROUND, and no one knows where you are. Shudder.
The whole film takes the term “nail biter” to the extreme. Running (er, crawling) from rubble piling up around them, rigging a makeshift line to get across a massive chasm, pushing their physical limits… there are many scenes where your heart is pounding just wondering how they’re going to make it out alive.
The first real sighting of the creatures — the cast and crew referred to them as “crawlers” — was TERRIFYING. You’ve already got an idea that something is lurking in the shadows and that first real glimpse in the night vision on the camera made me straight up scream.
They also did a great job at moments that were less jump scares and more just instances that make you do that quick, surprised inhale. When the girl slips going across the chasm and almost plummets to her death, when Juno accidentally stabs Beth in her adrenaline-fueled state after killing a crawler, when the girl’s watch alarm goes off as they’re “hiding” from the crawler stalking them… so many moments where you are just genuinely panicked for whoever is on screen.
There’s pretty decent gore but I really don’t think the movie relied on it too much. Holly breaking her leg and needing it cracked back into place, some intense crawler killings, but my favorite was Sam going across the chasm and a crawler slashing her throat from above and leaving her dangling… brilliant.
Ultimately the movie kind of focuses on what people will do to survive, the desperation that seeps into every interaction, the almost inhuman way people have to act to preserve their own lives in the face of danger. Sarah having to kill Beth with a rock, or her rising up out of that pool of blood (??) like a damn crocodile, or the crawler killing spree they go on at the end, straight up gouging one’s eyeballs out with her thumbs.
And the ending — THE ENDING. So many mixed feelings packed into what, less than 5 minutes? Sarah is sort of reborn as she emerges from a hole in ground, bursting out and gasping for air, you can FEEL her relief which is only escalated as we see the side shot of the car just BOMBING along the road, her wanting nothing but to get as far from that cave — that experience — as possible. But when she stops to take a breath, sob, and vomit out the window and sees a bloodied vision of Juno next to her, our only conclusion can be that she’s nowhere close to being free from the cave, and this is merely a more complex delusion. Fuuuuuuuuuck. That’s just the American version, too — the UK version has her actually waking up back in the caves, experiencing another vision of her daughter, with shrieking and clicking all around her. GAH.
Definitely one of the most genuinely terrifying moves I’ve seen in a long while.
Rating: 7.5/10 | Director: Neil Marshall | Writer: Neil Marshall | Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy | Music: David Julyan | Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone