2005 brought one box office horror hit to life, The Descent.
Neil Marshall was the mastermind director behind the film and one that I have a love-hate relationship with. His work on media such as The Descent, Hannibal, and Dog Soldiers drastically changed my outlook on horror but not every film of his is a hit. When it’s good it’s great. When it’s bad…well it’s bad.
If he stayed in the same motion with his first few films, he could have unlocked massive potential in the genre.
However, his pinnacle work came from The Descent. It was captured in a way that was terrifying and mature that kept you constantly on your feet. It was claustrophobic and harrowing.
At this point, I’m going to warn you about spoilers if you haven’t seen the film.
The film throws us into a reunion spelunking trick for six friends that turns south and fast. The first problem arises in the form of woman vs nature as the friends face issues with the deep cave system they are exploring when they get lost and try to find their way out. The cave is filled with tight tunnels and slips that lead to the injuries of the friends.
Let’s not forget the group of flesh-eating monsters that began to target the group.
I was surprised by this when getting into the film because it seemed to be just a “nature is dangerous” sort of movie. It was a nice add-in! The creatures are terrifying and one of my top examples of how to do jump scares properly (modern horror please take notes on this).
They do an excellent job in the film as they carry their environment well by how they maneuver in the cave. The cave-dwellers also do well in that they aren’t a terrible “no-one-can-defeat-me” monster. While it might be difficult to take one of them out it’s still doable. The terror comes in numbers.
However, it’s not the only horror aspect of the film. Another aspect of the film is psychological. The group slowly begins to dissolve when you learn more about the characters themselves.
The emotional interactions of the characters carry the narrative before it gets to the fight-or-flight aspect. There’s tension before the cave system that is only expedited when the stress of survival begins to amount.
It’s early in the film when we witness a car accident that kills the family of our main protagonist, Sarah. It doesn’t have to state that the friends have begun to drift apart due to adulthood. The friends seem to revel in the idea of chasing youth while Sarah genuinely wanted to settle down with her family.
I found Sarah’s grief to be one of the most devastating aspects. We see all that she wanted to be torn away from her in the blink of an eye. It’s traumatizing.
The trip is selfish. We see the friends engaging in the trip for the sake of “cheering” Sarah up, but I see it differently. It’s nothing but a pursuit to recapture youth. The refusal to realize that sometimes life just forces us to grow apart from each other, especially in challenging times.
The descent doesn’t speak these tensions verbally but rather through body language.
We see Sarah struggle with how disoriented she has become in life. The cave dwellers symbolize her struggles to an extent and how she attempts to eradicate them is an attempt to overcome these struggles.
(I’m ignoring the sequel because it’s trash, sorry folks.)
I don’t think the ending does Sarah justice as she does escape the cave as well as her still attempting to run from her problems. I like the alternative ending of Sarah not escaping the cave. It’s far more fitting for Sarah to make peace with what had happened. Yes, it may not have been a closure that the audience needed but one that Sarah needed. Not every horror film needs to have a clear-cut happy conclusion.
Sometimes we just need to witness someone going back to the barebone savagery of humanity’s basic primal instincts of survival. We watch Sarah embrace this for a full-frontal fight for her life. It’s visceral and moving. Shauna Macdonald did a phenomenal job with the acting in this film.
Sarah is an underrated final girl. She undergoes a metamorphic change in the film that’s emotional and moving.
There’s one thing that I wanted to highlight when it comes to the character group that might be a tad bit controversial but Juno.
Juno was one of the group characters that served to be Sarah’s “best friend” and honestly the problem that started the events of the film. While Sarah was deep in her grief Juno distanced herself away but showed up conveniently to plan the trip. I say planned loosely.
We’re told that Juno carefully planned and chose the cave but, in all actuality, she chose an unfamiliar part of the cave. This becomes known when part of the cave collapses. This seals the fate of the group as they are cut off from an exit and civilization. They are left in peril.
Juno is impulsive and often abandons her friends to face the cave dwellers after accidentally hitting one, Beth, with a pickaxe. Sarah finds Beth bleeding out and after Beth asks, quickly aids mercy, and kills her before the cave dwellers can do so. That feels like it should be the worst thing that we learn about Juno but it’s not.
We eventually find out that Juno was having an affair with Sarah’s husband. This is a very personal betrayal that Juno attempts to hide while planning this trip to appease her sense of guilt over her actions. This wasn’t really to help Sarah but rather a selfless fatal manipulation tactic.
But she dares to claim that “We all lost something in that crash” to the woman who lost EVERYTHING.
The revelation is one of my favorite scenes because Sarah doesn’t have to say anything. Her body does. You can see it on her face.
Juno’s ending was fitting and karma at its best. I also think it’s a major symbolic point of Sarah’s hero journey.
I know people are like “Well, Juno’s grieving too” and you lost me with that.
The film is a solid example of voyeuristic camera work that is accentuated by the lighting as well. Light plays a crucial role in the film. It not only works to comfort the characters as they chase any daylight, but it goes to show just how trapped the characters are. The red light from the flares highlights the slow descent into the cave system.
Marshall crafted a script and film that is moving and takes full advantage of its effects. The monsters may look a little dated to our stands, but they still hold out on the creep factor.
The film did great and was one of the defining early 2000s horror films with a budget of 3.5 million and a box office gain of 57.1 million.
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You won’t catch me spelunking in a cave