The Descent (2006)

3 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Descent” takes us where a good horror film should—it ventures into the unknown. It starts out with real people, one with real issues to face on her own, and then puts them in a mysterious location where, since it’s a horror film, something goes very wrong and they have to fight for their lives.

That location happens to be underground caverns. Already, that’s a masterstroke of horror-film writing. Just imagine yourself down there, on a spelunking expedition with your friends. It’s dark, it’s deep, and it never seems to end. You have to have a guide on your crew that knows the way out. But imagine that the further down into darkness you descend, the more you might discover…for better or worse. “The Descent” takes that feeling and ups the ante with familiar (but welcome) bump-in-the-night elements, as well as a great sense of atmosphere, and results in a satisfying horror film.

The film is about a group of six daredevil women who plan a trip to go spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. It should seem like a planned-out, safe journey into well-charted caves. But what they don’t know is that one of them—Juno (Natalie Mendoza)—has actually led them to an unknown crevasse so they can be the first to explore it. Of course, none of them know this until they suddenly find themselves trapped deep within the cavernous underworld, due to a cave-in.

Of these characters, the main focus is on Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who is distant from her friends due to an accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter. What she didn’t know (and still doesn’t, although we catch on) is that her husband may have had an affair with Juno. Now a year later, Juno invites Sarah and their old friends (and a couple new friends) to go on this trip that could grant him fame (and naming rights of the cavern)…granted they find a way out.

The caves are suitably dark and disturbing with only lanterns and headlamps to light the way—the film captures a great sense of mystery within these deep locations. The director Neil Marshall brings a load of suspense in the early stages of cave exploration in the first hour of the film, and brings about a truly unnerving, stomach-wrenching sequence in which the women are squeezing their way through a tight, cramped space to continue their trek. This scene is the most terrifying for my money. Just the idea of having to crawl through that tight a spot, and being stuck about halfway through is unsettling, because I’m as claustrophobic as they come. The fear of dying miles beneath the surface is brought to attention in “The Descent.”

Midway through the movie, the characters realize that they’re trapped and these caves aren’t marked, meaning they have to fight to survive if they’re going to find a way out. For about ten to twenty minutes, we get more good shock tactics featuring heights, falls, and tension amongst themselves. It’s later in the film when we finally see what the marketing of the film has been setting up, and so it’s no secret that as the characters descend deeper into the caves, they happen upon a strange breed of humanistic creatures that notice them as a threat.

These monsters are albino beings with no eyes, a supersonic hearing ability (like bats), and slime dripping off their naked bodies. Since they show up so late in the film, I could see some people calling this a cheap last-minute story gimmick. But I can let it go for two reasons. 1) They’re suitably scary enough. 2) In some bizarre way, I can accept the fact that these creatures could be found in very deep, underground-unknown places.

As you’d expect, the second half of “The Descent” features the characters fighting against the monsters and trying to save each other. The tension still remains with a great deal of suspense and energy, and the climax of the film actually amounts to something in ways I’ll only describe briefly. You see, the title of the movie has two meanings—a descent into the unknown and a descent into chaos and madness. The protagonist Sarah has been struggling with her sanity ever since the accident that killed her family, and now that this horrifying event is happening to her (which includes the reveal of Juno’s secret involving her husband), it is a further descent into chaos that causes her to attempt to act upon the courage she lost and the rebirth that she deserves. This makes the climax all the more compelling because she knows that if she is going to die, she is going to die fighting.

I’m glad that only one character out of these six was given a traumatic back story for us to focus on, although I admit I could have used a few more personality traits from a few of the other women. In fact, some of them I have to watch the movie for again to remember them.

The ending of “The Descent” is one of the most memorable in a horror film. It’s unsettling and unforgiveable, but more importantly, it’s intriguing and unforgettable.

“The Descent” is a terrific thriller with a dark claustrophobic atmosphere, credible tension, a good cast, a great dose of adrenaline, and suitable psychological issues. It’s so effective that I’m actually thinking more about what goes on in the uncharted caves, rather than the well-charted caves I tour with my family in Arkansas for summer trips. I probably don’t truly believe that there are vicious, slimy monsters down below, but you know there could be anything down there.

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