The Descent is half a languorously-paced introduction and half a compilation of sheer, unadulterated thrill, proving that that horror is in the eye of the beholder as it terrorizes its heroes with the twin threats of nature and something slightly more unnatural. As to which is more horrific, it’s entirely up to you.
(This review is detailed, but spoiler-free!)
The plot is relatively bare, but sketches more personality onto each of our six protagonists than typical genre fare. We don’t learn too much about who is claustrophobic, but we learn a bit about each woman – alternatingly fearless and tentative, experienced and unsure. First-introduced pair of Sarah and the strong-willed Juno are the most fully-realized – both cut from the same adventuresome cloth, but then sewn up in different ways. Their background and ensuing conflicts are the most developed, but the remaining quartet of women are well-enough defined in a few quickly paced bouts of perhaps too-easily-missable dialog.
Stacking the deck with a seemingly cliched extreme thrill-seeker (Holly) and a tentative young med student (Sam) is a blessing in disguise, as each has failings just as distinct as their strengths. The remaining pair – Sarah’s sensible best friend Beth and Sam’s sure older-sister Rebecca – are sketchier archetypes, but come packed with some of the most tangible emotion as the film progresses.
The six women are pulled together by Juno’s resolution that an adventurous distraction could set things straight between her and Sarah, who experienced a terrible and unfortunate tragedy a year before – just minutes after completing the last group adventure. Juno’s choice of challenge is spelunking in a cave that’s slightly more challenging than she lets on. In fact, the cave is terrifying – it’s rocky mass often takes up the majority the screen while a single character scratches and claws her way through a thin crevasse.
As if the spelunking wasn’t hard enough, the adventure is complicated by Juno and Holly’s over-aggressive nature, a single badly chosen path, and the creatures.
The creatures are half Gollum, half X-Files Fluke Man, and all creepy. Their creepiness is not only established by their look, but also their movement and methods of attack, which means that even in relatively bright conditions they still come off as completely terrifying. They are wisely reserved by Writer/Director Neil Marshall, for half the film, only vaguely hinted and once-glimpsed before they finally introduce themselves to the group of adventurers.
Several factors work strongly in Descent‘s favor, not the least of which being that it presents two eminently defeatable horrors: caves which can be surmounting with careful skill, and creatures which can be outsmarted or outfought given the right amount of pluck and timing. Each woman has the chance to do both, with mixed success. In light of this, the tension comes increasingly from personalities while the scares are shifted mostly the creatures (leaving you unprepared for a few final parting shots from the cave itself).
If you have a firm will and a strong stomach you might not avert your eyes from the screen due to the (intense) gore, but the film keeps you wincing with a gruesome bone break and a few terrifically jarring falls. On the human side of things, Juno and Sarah have separate interactions with Beth that left me in full-on tears, while Rebecca’s early feat of athleticism left me gasping for breath after holding it for so long.
Each woman holds their own against the creatures at least a little, with Sam’s quick non-combative reactions almost as satisfying as Natalie Mendoza’s starmaking ass-kickery as Juno. However, it is Shauna MacDonald as Sarah who truly steals the show, combining a little of each woman’s strengths along with a few shocking decisions and one classic Alien-by-way-of-Carrie sequence that could be the film’s trademark.
Ultimately the movie sends the message that thrillers are better off served straight-up thrilling, without the tired cliches that so often define them. The lack of speculation on the creatures’ origins keeps the suspension of disbelief refreshingly afloat. The lack of extended exposition lets the viewer experience everything for themselves. And, the all-female cast collectively reacts just as people under duress should react, making their sex hardly an issue (except for removing the tired angle of romance, and making the “virgin/slut” distinction negligible).
The flick could almost be cast with a blind eye to gender. Yet, it would be a lie to say that the lack of men has no impact – the movie is hardly feminist in conception, but it says some things about women and friendship along the way.
The finale was truncated in the US because the worldwide version was deemed too grim for American audiences. The US version is shocking, though it will leave you uneasy and possibly confused, while the original UK ending turns the film into more of a psychological mindbender than it might have otherwise seemed. It’s hard to say which is superior, but either way this is a movie that absolutely must be experienced on the big screen while you have the chance. A DVD screening won’t pack the same punch, unless you plan to screen in a particularly dank basement with killer surround.
The Descent may fail un-creepable critics, jaded horror junkies, especially well-versed rock-climbers, and creature-obsessees, all of whom will find some chinks to complain over. Anyone who can appreciate the agile-but-sparse character development who enjoys a good, stomach-churning scare would never turn The Descent down.