As human beings we all begin life in the same way. We are conceived and gestated within the womb of a woman for approximately nine months before being traumatically thrust into, what seems to us, a cold and harsh world. If we were sentient throughout those nine months, I’m sure we would be at absolute peace. Tightly swaddled within the warm, muffled and self-sufficient environment, it would seem like the ideal way to spend a very small portion of one’s life. Indeed many parenting experts recommend tightly wrapping an inconsolable infant in a blanket to mimic the gestational environment to calm them. Given that most humans begin life in this manner it’s amazing that many of us experience abject terror when put in the same situation as adults. The thought of being in a small, smothering and constricting space sends us into an immediate panic. That’s what The Descent does. It closes upon you, constricts you and smothers you until you’re not sure you can take it anymore.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), and Beth (Alex Reid) are three of a group of thrill seeking friends. After a trip to go white water rafting Sarah, her husband and daughter are involved in a tragic car accident. One year later, Sarah asks her friends to arrange another expedition to help her to deal with her loss and rediscover her zeal for life. The three friends meet up with the rest of their gang Becca, (Saskia Mulder) Sam, (MyAnna Buring) and Juno’s new protégé Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) in rural North Carolina. The following morning they set out for a network of caves that are more suited to tourists as opposed to experienced cavers. At the expeditions outset, everything goes fine. But after a cave-in it becomes apparent that they aren’t in the caves that they thought they were and have no hope of rescue.
The only choice the team has is to push further into the tunnels in the hope of finding another way out. While they believe that the caves they are in are uncharted, they begin to find evidence that they have been explored before. As they continue, the women begin to encounter signs that the tunnels may not be unoccupied. They find bones both human and animal and catch fleeting glimpses of bipedal predators in the darkened recesses of the caverns. As their situation deteriorates so do their chances at survival. If they want to see daylight again, they’ll have to overcome the caves, the creatures and each other.
Written and directed by Neil Marshall 2005’s The Descent is a rare entry into a horror genre that has become more preoccupied with gore and “the epic kill” than creating a fully terrifying experience. Rather than reading the how-to manual for producing a modern horror film on a tight budget, Marshall deviates from the norm and refuses to just focus on the subterranean creatures and shoot frame after frame of slaughter and entrails. Make no mistake that the film has its fair share but it never seems excessive or gratuitous. By focusing on the inter-relationships of the characters and how they react to the stress and immensity of the situation they find themselves in, Marshall manages to give the creatures more of an impact without drawing attention away from the downward spiral the friends are riding. In fact, I believe one could argue that it isn’t the cave’s predators that are the antagonists in this film, but Juno, the friend that got them into this situation in the first place.
The acting is perfectly serviceable for the type of film that The Descent is. Nobody over does it or chews scenery and Shauna Macdonald portrays the grieving mother on her road to madness quite well. Mendoza’s Juno is believable as the athletic thrill seeker that sometimes goes a bit to far and plays the character with enough of a conceited swagger to make the situation they’re in seem credible. The creatures that inhabit the cave, dubbed crawlers, are well acted and never used as a crutch to further the story along. If there’s one complaint that I have with modern horror films is that they sometimes rely too heavily on CGI for their creature effects but that is not the case here. Every crawler is a person in makeup and his or her performances are a credit to the art of creature acting. The crawlers feel like organic and living creatures and one has no issue believing that they could have evolved in the nocturnal environment of the caves. As they are blind and navigate the underground by sound it adds an interesting element to the predator/prey dynamic that dominates the third act of the film. It also serves to level the playing field and help the viewer accept that a group of people locked in darkness, with only flashlights and glow sticks for light, would have a chance at surviving.
What makes The Descent such a success in horror, though, is the detail paid to the star of the film: the caves. The group’s journey is an exercise in pure tension as, for the majority of the film, the only light source is the lamps on the spelunker’s heads, glow sticks or torches. The effect this has on the atmosphere of the film cannot be overstated. It’s because of this decision coupled with filming so close to the actors that already cramped tunnels with barely an inch to spare are made to be suffocating. The lighting causes the rocks to close in on you and the claustrophobia so palpable that you may find your breath quickening if you’re even breathing at all. The entire second act of the film is a series of tight spaces that constrict the viewer until you almost wonder if you’re going to make it. The tons and tons of rock weighing on your chest as Sarah and her friends attempt to wiggle through tiny shaft or cross yawning caverns while hanging by a hand create a ceaselessly plodding sense of dread. By using only these light sources, the director and cinematographer have constructed a set that is utterly believable and terrifying if you have even the slightest aversion to close quarters. After the group enters the caves there is literally no scene that I recall being fully lit in any way. But, just as you think you may be crushed by the unimaginable weight of the earth above you, the women exit into a spacious cavern allowing you and them to breathe again. Except that there are still those shadows everywhere.
For all that The Descent has going for it, it does have a few items that detract from the experience. It may seem rather minor, but if you’re making a movie primarily set in a cave, you really should make sure that the equipment they’re squirming through a hole the size of a golf cup with doesn’t mysteriously disappear then reappear. There are other small inconsistencies and minor plot squabbles but the one thing that I couldn’t get over were the women themselves. At no fucking time are you going to be able to convince me that six women are going to completely make themselves up to go and shuffle around in some caves. It was disconcerting to watch a tense struggle then have the character look at the camera with a perfectly shadowed eye and immaculately stuck lips. Aside from those small quibbles The Descent is a relentless slow burn of a movie that relies more on atmosphere for its horror, as opposed to blood and viscera. If you have even a light dusting of claustrophobia, it’s just that much better.