MAN, YOU CAN’T EVEN GO CAVING IN UNEXPLORED CAVE SYSTEMS ANYMORE WITHOUT MUTANT CANNIBALS COMING AFTER YOU!
Main Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza
Director: Neil Marshall
Simply put, Neil Marshall’s 2005 movie The Descent is about a group of women who go on an adventure exploring an uncharted cave in the Appalachian Mountains and meet a couple of grisly ends at the hands of a tribe of mutated underground dwellers who’ve evolved over time to exist underground.
But when you dig deeper and look at the characters it’s about a little bit more. It’s about one character, Sarah’s, journey through the grief of losing her husband and daughter a year earlier. It’s about another woman, Juno’s, penance for betraying her best friend, Sarah, by having an affair with her husband. It’s about the breakdown of a band of pretty tough characters when faced with conditions no one should ever think to find themselves dealing with.
I enjoyed this movie the first time I saw it, probably a decade ago when it first hit DVD, and I enjoyed it again when I saw it this morning. I don’t know that I’d say I enjoyed it more the second time–probably about the same–but either way it holds up. That’s more than I can say for a lot of other horror movies I’ve seen a second time.
One place I think the movie fails, however, is in the characterization. I’ve read that Marshall made the characters to all have different accents to differentiate them, but for me the movie was 2/3 over before I even learned a couple of their names. For the most part, I knew Sarah and Juno, and just before she–spoilers–died, I learned Holly’s name. But Beth, Sam and Rebecca, I didn’t learn their names until it was–spoilers–too late. And that’s because we get a big intro scene toward the beginning when the women are getting together and planning their caving expedition for the next day, but other than Sarah who we know through the opening with the death of her husband and daughter, we get no time alone with any of the other characters. We don’t get to learn anything at all about them, who they are, what they want out of life, or even, in three of the six cases, their names. Until it’s too late to care. Juno stands out from the rest as the only Asian among a gaggle of European women, and Holly had some wild hair that was pretty memorable. But the other three…nope. Not a thing about any of them stood out.
One of the strengths of the movie was in its ability to terrify. I’m usually immune to jump scares, having spent 43 years watching as many horror movies as I can get my hands on. But this movie delivered in more than one instance from pretty effective scares that I didn’t see coming at all. And that’s something, at least.
The make-up effects were also pretty spectacular. The design of the bat-like humanoid creatures the women run into looked genuinely possible and totally terrible. And the way the actors portrayed them sold the effect even more.
Production design, also, wins out in The Descent. Filmed on a lot, you’d have never guessed they weren’t actually trapped in a cave underground. And for that being the reality we’re being sold here, the thing was amazingly well-lit without feeling purposely well-lit.
This was just a solid horror movie that came out of nowhere and delivered over 90 minutes of solid terror in a, forgive the play on words, fearless way that many other horror movies shy away from for whatever reason. But Neil Marshall proved he knows his stuff on Dog Soldiers–another movie I highly recommend–so it’s good to see him allowed to follow through with his own kind of movie. Not many are given that chance at their own undisturbed vision on only their second try at bat (Josh Trank knows what I’m talking about!).
What Marshall has done is take a very very simple idea, built a crapload of tension around it, and made it work as a complex, deeply effective horror movie with super subtle subplots, surreptitious character development, and in your face horror. And that’s what makes this one work so well. See it and I promise you won’t come away feeling like you’ve just wasted an afternoon. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.
Now, for the sake of clarity, the cast and where you might know them from:
Sarah, Shauna Macdonald, “MI-5”
Juno, Natalie Mendoza, MOULIN ROUGE
Holly, Nora-Jane Noone, “Coronation Street”
Beth, Alex Reid, “Ultimate Force”
Sam, MyAnna Buring, “Ripper Street”
Rebecca, Saskia Mulder, THE BEACH