The quintessential bloodbath
A horror movie is the ultimate crapshoot, with the vast majority being constructed from plot devices that have come to be considered cliche (camping trip gone wrong, anyone?) or so impossible as to be downright ludicrous (i.e. Saw or Silent Hill), but for those of us who are patient and persistent in our devotion to the genre, we are rewarded once or twice a decade with a true gem of a film that sends our senses into overdrive, taps into our most carnal of fears, and leaves us feeling all dirty (in a sort of good way, if that makes sense) after we watch it. And if it's really good, our appetites are obliterated for hours, we develop a temporary case of nightmare-induced insomnia, or we are simply thankful to emerge from the theater into the blessed daylight. After seeing The Descent, a British horror movie brought to us from the studio who made the overrated Hostel, I noticed not only that my appetite was thankfully nonexistent, but also a certainty that I will not be undertaking a caving expedition in the forseeable future.
The film begins with an introduction to the film's main characters, namely Sarah and Juno, whose friendship was forged by years of adventure seeking- whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, etc. There is a lot of story between these women, enough to create another type of film altogether- one that would even be interesting- but none of that is explored much in depth. Tragedy strikes Sarah's life early in the film, and we are caught up with all of them a year later on the brink of a caving expedition that brings them back together as a way to help Sarah out of her period of grief. We are also introduced to a few other women, making a team of six, in the remote wilderness of the Appalachains in North Carolina. Juno makes for a tough team leader- the bold, experienced one who is taking the women into the belly of an unexplored beast. The writers of this film play these characters smart. We are not introduced to a series of archetypes- Ms. Spunky and Reckless followed by her friends Ms. Smart and Thoughtful and Ms. Slutty and Careless. Granted, they each have their own personalities, but they aren't cardboard cut-outs, and we are made to care about all of them. In a typical horror movie, you pretty much know within the first 10 minutes who is going to live and die. Here these women are tough and independent, and they are straining their bodies to their limits as they squeeze through rocky pipelines, strand rope over crevasses of immeasurable depths, and brought to the absolute brink of insanity when things start to turn horribly wrong.
In fact, the moments that bring the most adrenaline are when the camera shots are tightest, as the women shove themselves through passages not meant for human beings. In one early cave scene, Sarah gets stuck in a narrow opening and begins to experience an anxiety attack. The constricting around the chest, the quickening of respiration, and the outright panic flooding of her senses as she realizes she is trapped 2 miles below the earth in a cave explored by no one else is incredibly palpable, and we feel trapped with her. Similar to another film, a documentary called Touching the Void where two men are stranded and injured on the face of a treacherous mountain in Chile, the level of pain and panic experienced by the actors is contagious, and makes us look away and squirm in our seats. This effect is aided by director Neil Marshall (a burgeoning master in only his second major release) and his cinematographer Sam McCurdy, both of whom have a gift for making this cave a foreboding character all its own. Shots in the dark, illuminated red by flares lit by the girls as they make their way, paint the rock walls like dripping blood, and we are forced to imagine if this is what hell truly looks like.
I am not going to reveal much more about the film's plot than this. I went into The Descent almost completely blind, and I think this only serves to highten the experience. Like the women, I had no idea what was lurking below when I took the plunge, and my terror mirrored their own. But what I did notice was that Neil Marshall has a true gift for stroking our deepest fears- those of the dark, the unknown, closed spaces, or of being lost,- and he does it by paying proper homage to the masters who have done it before while still making the movie his own. You will notice references to movies like Carrie, Alien, Apocalypse Now, and even a little bit of The Blair Witch Project.
The Descent doesn't only refer to a drop into a rock-lined abyss, but also to a descent into madness, grief, and into the animalistic requirements of survival and desperation. Unlike recent horror films like Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, one-trick ponies where people are gored and tortured merely for visceral shock value, The Descent stirs the soul, involves our minds, and perhaps most importantly- forces us to empathize. If you are a fan of horror, this is the movie you've been waiting years to see.
Gouda's Final Grade: A-