When it comes to horror movies, we’ve seen it all. Whether it be haunted houses, possessions, zombies, vampires – Hollywood has explored them all in a variety of different ways. I think that’s one reason “The Descent” works so well. This is a fresh and original horror movie concept that also has its share on genuine scares. Writer and director Neil Marshall brushes with several unique strokes in crafting a film that bucks many of the genre’s trends while never running away from what makes the genre great. “The Descent” is a fairly simple piece of survival horror but don’t let the straightforward narrative fool you. It’s also a gruesome edge-of-your-seat nail-biter that will remind you of just how entertaining a well conceived horror movie can be.
One of Marshall’s touches that I really liked was his decision to make this a predominantly female story. It couldn’t have played out any better. Its been a year since Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) lost her husband and daughter in a tragic car accident. Five of her adventurous friends plan a caving trip that they hope will help Sarah who is still struggling with her loss. There’s a fun and playful dynamic established between the girls and we get a brief introduction to each of them during their overnight stay in some mountain cabins. Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is the ring leader who organized the entire outing. Early the next morning she leads the girls out to a remote cave entrance and they begin their adventure. As they make their way deeper into the caves, Sarah is nearly killed during a cave-in that blocks their way out. It’s here that Juno reveals that she has taken them to a set of caves not recognized in the guide book and that no one knows where they are. Alone and scared, the group sets out to try to find a way out.
The movie does a fantastic job of making the cave the women’s first big enemy. They’re forced to manuever tiny crawlspaces, deep chasms, and jagged ledges all hidden in the pitch-black darkness. Marshall’s camera puts the audience in the same dark and claustrophobic conditions as the characters. He also masterfully manipulates light and sound to give the caves a greater sense of danger. The women use helmet-mounted lights, flares, and light sticks which offer the only illumination amid the darkness and clouds of dust. He also heavily uses sound to help create a tenser ambiance. There are the cavernous echos, the clanging metal of the climbing gear, crumbling rock, and water drips. This is perfectly realized and intense environment really drew me in.
But the cave isn’t the only enemy. As they are forced deeper underground, they cross paths with a pack of vicious and carnivorous creatures. This is where “The Descent” moves from suspenseful survival to full-blown horror and let me say that it’s mighty effective. It’s basically a “lets see who makes it out alive” story but it’s hard not to be hooked. The intensity really amps up and the scares are authentic. I rarely jump even while watching my favorite horror movies. But “The Descent” got me on several occasions and not with the cheap, conventional tricks that we see so often. The creatures are frightening and when you throw them into the already established dark and creepy environment, you have a wonderful horror mixture.
“The Descent” is a fine horror movie but it isn’t perfect. While I was able to stay interested in the six main characters, I couldn’t help but want a little more character development before diving straight into the caves. The performances are solid and the characters are interesting. But it felt as if there was information left out that would have given the women and their relationships more depth. In fact, there are hints at an underlying tension between Sarah and Juno prior to their adventure (and I’ll leave it at that) but we only get small tastes of that. I would have liked to see more. And then there are some head-scratching questions that the story doesn’t seem to anticipate. One thing we see after the creatures make their appearance are bones, lots and lots of bones. Some are from animals but there are tons of human bones. I couldn’t help but wonder how that hundreds of people could have been killed in that area and it not be noticed? Wouldn’t it be well-known that people were disappearing in that neck of the woods?
While those negatives did stand out to me, they certainly didn’t ruin the movie. “The Descent” was a welcomed change from the traditional horror film formula. It incorporates several familiar techniques that we’ve seen in everything from psychological to slasher horror. But they’re used in a unique and fresh environment and I was hooked from the moment they entered the cave. This isn’t a movie for the faint at heart. Things get pretty gory as we get further into the picture. But for old-school horror fans, it’s a perfect fit and when you toss in some genuine scares and a superb cast you have a nicely packaged modern horror film.