Neil Marshall’s The Descent is the kind of movie that makes converts out of people who don’t normally gravitate towards the horror genre. It not only delivers on the scares but does so by constructing a compelling story around its gory set pieces. It is truly a film that transcends the boundaries of genre and can simply be called “good” rather than “good for a horror movie.”
The film opens with a brief prologue, introducing Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid), three thrill seeking friends. On the way home from their latest adventure, Sarah, her husband and their daughter are involved in a car accident that only Sarah survives. It is an emotionally and psychologically shattering event and a year later Sarah is still deeply grieving. In an attempt to help her reconnect with life, Juno has arranged a spelunking expedition in the Appalachian mountains where they are joined by Beth and their friends Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone).
The six set off for their latest adventure but shortly after descending into the caves things begin to go horribly awry. A cave in blocks their exit and Juno reluctantly admits to the others that not only did she not alert authorities to their plans, but she’s brought them to a different cave than the one they thought they were going to – one that no one else has ever explored. Knowing that the clock is ticking on their flashlights, the six quickly put aside the allocation of blame to focus on finding a way out, a task which becomes increasingly desperate once Rebecca and Holly succumb to injuries.
As they make their way deeper into the cave system, Sarah is convinced that she sees someone else down there. Juno initially writes the sighting off as a delusion borne of panic but when the group stumbles across a large collection of bones they realize that they’re in much more danger than they had ever suspected. In horror movie fashion the culprit – culprits, in this case: a population of man-sized creatures that are not unlike bats – is soon revealed and the members of the group start to get picked off one by one until finally it’s down to Sarah and Juno to battle their way back to the surface.
Though the main draw for horror fans might be the creatures and the carnage, The Descent is a psychologically rich film that can satisfy the cinematic tastes of just about anyone. The title refers not just to the physical act of the six friends going down into the caves, but of the necessity that Sarah descend to the very depths of her unconscious in order to see things clearly, specifically Juno’s character. Juno, while admirable in certain respects, is unquestionably a selfish character who consistently fails to register the effect her actions have on others. In her desire to bolster her ego by “discovering” the cave, she has led her friends into a death trap. In a way she is responsible for all of the deaths; in a more concrete way she is responsible for Beth’s death. It is not the means of Beth’s death (which is certainly an accident) that further clouds our view of Juno but the fact that she refuses to take responsibility, leaving Beth to die slowly from her wounds and then refusing to acknowledge her wrongdoing. Juno is not someone who can be counted on and discovering that is a crucial part of Sarah’s personal journey.
Following Sarah’s realization of who Juno really is, she undergoes a baptism of sorts that is reminiscent of the scene in Apocalypse Now when Willard, finally prepared to do what it is he must do, emerges from the water a true warrior. Sarah is a different person when she rises from the lowest depths, no longer scared, now fully in control of herself and prepared to do whatever she has to in order to survive. The film develops Sarah and Juno as contrasts, their actions in some instances mirroring each other, and this works well, allowing for them to become fleshed out in an efficient way that eliminates the need for a lot of exposition (the downside to this, however, is that Sarah and Juno are the only two of the six characters who have really distinct personalities).
What makes The Descent so particularly effective is the firm direction by Marshall. The atmosphere he creates is very nearly a character in its own right and intensifies the action, making it all the more memorable. The lighting inside the caves is kept to a minimum – headlamps and flashlights, flares, and the occasional shot through an infrared camera – as a means of replicating for the audience the experience of the characters. It is a sound decision and a mark of Marshall’s skill that he can limit the visuals but still tell such an engrossing and engaging story. I would highly recommend this film even to people who don’t normally watch horror movies because it’s such a fine work of craftsmanship that the genre itself becomes secondary to the product on the screen.