Last night after Juli had gone to bed, I watched The Descent, a film which I had passed off as total “meh” when it first came out in 2006. Oh great, another stupid Hollywood piece of shit horror movie, I thought. I passed it off as nothing. Then, earlier this year when I was in Minnesota with Mikey W we got to discussing films (as we do) and The Descent came up. He recommended it to me wholeheartedly, noting that my preconceptions about it were wrong. Always willing to give a film with a solid recommendation a chance, I threw it onto my Netflix Queue.
I’m glad I did too, because it’s a fine example of what can be accomplish on a smallish budget when you’ve got a super tight script, concept, actors, and production team. Working with not that much, director Neil Marshall turned out the best new horror film I’ve seen in a few years that doesn’t rely on a gimmick (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you).
The film is about Sarah, who lost her husband and child in a grisly auto accident a year prior, and a group her friends, led by the headstrong Juno, embarking on an adventure into a cave system in the Appalachian Mountains. They climb down into a giant hole in the ground (that’s the technical term) to do some spelunking and Sarah starts to see shadows moving. When they becoming trapped by a cave in, Juno reveals that this isn’t the cavern they were supposed to be in and then it all goes down hill. I won’t spoil it any further. You should see it.
The Descent is truly masterful at building a palpable sense of dread. As much as everyone subconsciously wants to go back to the womb, no one wants to be trapped in a cave with two miles of rock above them and with no way of getting help. Really, this film, for me, breaks into two kinds of scares. The first is the base human dread of being trapped alive with no hope of escape, which seems like a most horrible way to die. Claustrophobia is this film’s friend and confidant. Taking clear cues from Ridley Scott’s Alien, The Descent utilizes its setting to enhance the dread we feel as we imagine ourselves in the place of the women struggling desperately to escape into the light. The second, which is less interesting, is the jump-out-at-you scare. I am not a fan of these types of scare, not because I am susceptible to them, but because I find them often to be cheap. Being startled because something jumped out and the music suddenly got very loud is not being scared. Sure, it causes me to jump, but it’s nothing compared to the dread you feel when something is really scary. Now, I’m not begrudging this film the use of the jumpscare (a term I read somewhere that I like) because it’s one of the horror genre’s most common tools. I just think it’s cheap, but that is a genre-wide complaint, and not specific to The Descent.
I thought that the most frightening point of the whole film was when Sarah is crawling through an extremely narrow passageway and begins to have a panic attack. She feels stuck and her friend Beth comes back for her, trying to calm her down. Then the passage starts to collapse and they have to rush through this narrow little hole as quickly as they can lest they be crushed under tons of falling rock. I was sitting on the sofa watching this with my body turned halfway away from the screen, my head cocked back, I found it so horrifying. No number of jumpscares could equal the slow dread of that moment for me. It reminded me for the first time in a long time of how as a kid I used to hide by the door during particularly scary parts when watching horror films so that if I needed to I could get away and not have to sit through whatever was about to happen. It was that same feeling, except I wasn’t hiding by the door.
Regarding the effects in the film, I thought they were mostly spot on. The creatures were amazing. They were like Gollum, if Gollum was, you know, a real monster. The excessive blood and gore was a little silly at points, but never dissatisfying. The set design and cinematography was great with real moments of actual darkness. Not bullshit movie darkness, but real, old fashioned, ain’t-no-light-in-this-bitch darkness. There were a few comps that weren’t that great, where they felt like they were overreaching their capabilities, but overall it was a seamless effort.
My one almost-criticism, is that is nearly falls into the “Inappropriately Hot Chick” convention, which I will not describe here. Fortunately, it’s kind of ok here. Perhaps this is just a particularly attractive group of spelunkers. I don’t know. I don’t do a lot of crawling about in caves, but something tells me that we’re looking at a conveniently too-pretty group of cave divers. Expect further analysis of this convention in a future Black Laser post.
Niggles aside, if you’re a fan of horror flicks, check out The Descent. It won’t make you mad. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot, and I am glad I watched it alone because Juli would have hated it. When the chick gets the pickaxe through the throat? Awesome.