The Descent

A horror film that's approximately decent? Perhaps the biggest shock of all!

Released in 2005, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 01 Aug 2005 by Scott Morris
Descent image

Gather around, children, for Uncle Scott is about to tell a tale as rare as the teeth of the hen, a tale of a horror film that doesn't completely suck. I shall allow you a few beats to stay the sense of shock this no-doubt instills. While this isn't to say that writer / director Neil Marshall's follow-up to 2002's nifty Dog Soldiers doesn't suck in parts, it's certainly the closest approximation to a good horror film since, ooh, the 2003 remake of The Ring.

Thankfully it's not based on the old mine-centric PC shooter game, although there's a similar underground motif to it. It's all about the spelunking, really. A year on from the tragic (and graphic) death of her husband and child in a road traffic accident, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is brought over to a remote series of caves in the Appalachian mountains for a spirit boosting potholing expedition by a group of her friends. After a night of drinking and associated merrymaking the small band of empowered females of mixed rock climbing capability head off to the relatively safe Boreham cave system.

Wait,! Deciding that something more challenging would be a little more fun, group wildcard Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) leads them unknowingly instead to a cave system that, seemingly, no one has ever explored before. Jinkies. This turns out to be a crap idea, initially due to an unstable tunnel caving in nearly crushing Sarah and barring the path back out. Confessing to the change of location and that she knows of no other way out, Juno decides they must plough on further down an find an alternate route.

This turns out to be what can only be termed one of the crappest ideas ever, although to be fair that's only due to the unexpected wildcard of a bunch of cave dwelling, people eating mutant things that look like an unfortunate coupling betwixt Gollum and that thing off Creep. Once they realise they're being picked off by these freaks and are hopelessly lost, descending ever deeper into this nightmare it's understandable that nerves start to jangle.

Descent image

In fact, the only remarkable thing about the way the ladies cope with their seemingly inescapable menu occupancy is that Juno and Sarah find time to resolve some personal issues in ways that don't seem too far fetched given the far fetched situation. Much like Dog Soldiers, the crucial element that Marshall captures that makes this unquestionably better than its brethren is that his characters feel and act like (gasp!) real people, not the standard issue caricatures of House of Wax or Wrong Turn.

So, a blinding piece of horror innovation them? No, not by a long chalk. For all the claustrophobia the setting could provide there's little sense of the walls closing in on our protagonists, and the tension that it seeks to build never quite hits the high note it on occasion hints at. Certainly David Julyan's overly bombastic score doesn't help, intruding rather than subtly elevating proceedings. Still, even if there isn't the required atmosphere to have anyone in serious danger of fleeing the cinema in a blind, fearful panic, there's enough empathy built up for the characters not to have some degree of underpant integrity threatening moments when the Creepers, as the troglodyte woman munchers are apparently known, show up to rip them apart.

For the most part it's utterly predictable in common with near enough all of its' stablemates. More than once I guarantee you'll be sitting thinking, "Scary Thing X is going to happen as she rounds this corner" (where 'X' is invariably 'glimpse of Dave the Creeper') and lo and behold, Scary Thing X occurs. Remarkably, oftentimes this unwanted pre-warning doesn't stop the film from delivering a genuine shock to the system, a fact I'm at something of a loss to properly explain but have to hand the credit to Mr Marshall for achieving it. The Descent made me jump far more than any horror film I've seen in a cinema in years. Unquestionably a good thing, even if it does achieve this more than half the time with loud orchestral feckin' stabs, the scourge of humanity in this genre.

Descent image

I've ranted before on this site on more than one occasion of what a cheap, shoddy, exploitative and lazy way this is to get a cheap thrill from an audience so I'll skip over the gory details to get on to, well, the gory details actually. Observant viewers will note the 18 certificate the BBFC have bestowed upon this, and thanks to this we can get the odd scene that wouldn't have looked too out of place in one of Romero's zombie chomp-fests. It's all very well done, and while the character design of our cave-dwelling nasties seems a trifle derivative you can't fault the consistently distinctive and effective use of them. It's never gratuitously violent, oddly enough. The claret isn't slopped around with wild abandon (with the possible exception of one scene, which you'll recognise when you see it), making it rather more chilling when it the red water does come out.

It's perhaps not the Second Coming as some folks seem to think it is, and despite what some baffled fools think on the imdb boards about it being some complex metaphor for Sarah's death in the initial crash that claimed her family (on the basis of - surprise - absolutely no evidence whatsoever) it's nothing more than a simple horror story. It's just a simpler horror story with a far tighter, more effective execution and vaguely realistic characters that you can start to care about. Not rocket science you'd think (although given NASA's continuing issues with the Shuttle that might be a good thing), but it's something that none of the teen oriented drivel that Hollywood contemptuously hurls in our direction manage to achieve and on that basis alone it's a good horror film. If this isn't the sort of set-up you don't like in the first place I doubt that The Descent will radically alter your perspective on it, but if like us you've been quietly hoping that a horror film that just didn't utterly suck would come along The Descent is all we can ask for. Dare we hope for one that's actually really good now?

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Neil Marshall
Cast list:
Shauna Macdonald (Sarah)
Natalie Jackson Mendoza (Juno)
Molly Kayll (Jessica)
MyAnna Buring (Sam)
Oliver Milburn (Paul)
Saskia Mulder (Rebecca)
Nora-Jane Noone (Holly)
Alex Reid (Beth)
Craig Conway (The Limper)
Stephen Lamb (Crawler)