How often do you get asked to suggest a movie choice for a friend or relative who has run out of ideas? When it comes to horror I find myself telling people to give The Descent a try every chance I get.
In my humble opinion it’s a brilliant film, (thought I would get that out of the way right now), one of the most well structured, gripping and intense horror movies I have seen in the last 10 to 15 years.
Director Neil Marshall impressed everyone when Dog Soldiers was released back in 2002 but with The Descent he stepped up to another level and produced a truly polished modern great. As with all my reviews I don’t want to sit here and just tell you things you probably already know if you’ve seen the movie, instead I want to focus on a couple of aspects that always catch my eye and make me think about them whenever I watch it again, the first being the introduction of the creatures known as ‘Crawlers’.
I’ve had a long held belief that The Descent could actually still have succeeded as a great horror without them altogether. When the six main characters enter the cave system the movie has already nicely set up a simmering and potentially explosive situation involving our doomed heroines … Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), is making the trip one year after losing her husband Paul and daughter Jessica in a horrific car accident … Just before the accident takes place we are given a very strong hint that Sarah’s good friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), is having an affair with Paul and viewers are left to store this information knowing full well it will come into play later.
Once in the caves it quickly becomes clear that Juno is overcompensating in everything she does, possibly due to remorse and ongoing grief of her own. She hasn’t planned the trip with honesty and in fact has taken the women to a different location altogether. The caves they have entered have never been properly explored and nobody in the outside World knows where they are. This excites Juno and filled with energy she tells her companions it’s a chance to do something special and rebuild lost friendships.
Unfortunately for Juno all she has done is lead them into an increasingly desperate situation where every turn they make just brings more danger … Claustrophobic tunnels collapse around them, deep chasms have to be traversed, broken bones mended. With each incident the groups friendships and bonds are tested and stretched to their limits.
Then just to make matters even worse Sarah starts catching glimpses of shadows moving and at one point spots what appears to be a ‘Gollum’ like creature squatting at the far end of a dimly lit tunnel. The others suggest her mind is simply playing tricks on her with all the artificial lighting they are surrounded by … and it’s at this point where maybe, just maybe, The Descent could have become a very different movie but had the same impact.
The potential for having the characters just turn on each other to fully ramp up the horror was certainly there, Juno was becoming an outcast, Sarah seemed distant at times unable to move on from her grief, the frustration of being trapped somewhere they shouldn’t have even been, the terrible leg injury sustained by Holly (Nora Jane Noone) and of course the lingering secret affair. Suffocating tension was overwhelming them with each passing minute, Sarah’s sightings could possibly have just been in her head, making things even more twisted and interesting.
As it turned out Marshall brilliantly blended this relatable terror with some good old fashioned monster scares and the end result is that viewers get a little bit of everything. It highlights just how good the first half of the movie is that such a thing could even be considered in the first place.
Then there is the stunning lighting within the movie. All the caves were constructed at Pinewood studios for safety reasons and in many scenes the only source of light when the cameras were rolling comes from whatever the characters were holding at the time … This gives most of the individual set pieces a very distinctive look and neatly chops up the movie into beautiful colour coded sections.
It’s often said that some movies have a specific palette of colours they are associated with, The Descent gives us a veritable rainbow of visual moments and this use of minimal lighting just makes the brilliant set designs look even more ominous and enclosed.
If you haven’t seen The Descent then yes, I THOROUGHLY recommend it. The acting is mostly great, the scares are intense and it just has that pinch of quality about it that many horrors of this type lack, a certain something I can’t quite define but you will know what I mean after you see it.
The score by David Julyan is beautiful, sad and genuinely quite moving, far better than you would normally expect to find in a modest budget horror and the direction is handled superbly, which makes it all the more frustrating that Neil Marshall has arguably disappointed ever since.
I want to finish by briefly mentioning the ending … (SPOILERS BELOW) so proceed with caution!
For a long time I was unaware some audiences around the World had seen a chopped up version of the ending on the big screen which is a damn shame because the missing few seconds are crucial, in my opinion anyway.
Basically, Juno and Sarah are the only survivors by the time we reach the climax, they stand back to back and fight off multiple crawlers in a heroic last stand. When the dust settles they are triumphant but Sarah swings her axe into Juno’s leg leaving her crippled and at the mercy of the second wave of crawlers that are approaching (She discovered that Juno did indeed have an affair with her late husband AND accidentally mortally wounded Beth). Sarah then escapes the caves, climbs down the mountain and drives away in one of their jeeps. She stops at the side of the road to vomit out of the window and when she rises she sees a ghostly image of Juno sitting next to her and screams …
This is the point where the movie finished for many people, BUT the true ending follows the scream with Sarah waking up back in the cave after a fall, she didn’t escape and is still very much trapped. She calmly smiles toward a vision of her deceased daughter and the camera pulls back to reveal just how big the caves are and the echoing sounds of multiple crawlers screeching.
It’s the sombre and powerful ending the movie needed and deserved. The whole thing was structured as an unrelenting downward spiral for the characters, a Descent … happy endings not needed or welcome this time.
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