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The Descent (2005)

June 20th, 2008 · 5 Comments

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Synopsis
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) wraps up a rafting trip in Scotland with her friends – daredevil Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and schoolteacher Beth (Alex Reid) – and rejoins her husband and daughter for the drive home. Their car collides with another vehicle, only Sarah survives. A year later, she’s still coping with the tragedy when she joins Beth and Juno for a weekend in the remote Appalachian Mountains. An adrenaline junkie from Glasgow named Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), expert mountaineer Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and her sister, a med student named Sam (MyAnna Buring) round out the group.

Juno directs them to a crater that the others believe lead to a series of beginner’s caves. As Sarah squeezes her way through a narrow passage, she suffers a panic attack and becomes trapped. Beth pulls her to safety, but the passage collapses behind them. Sarah blacks out and hallucinates seeing her daughter holding a birthday cake in the dark. When she comes to, Juno admits leading them away from their flight plan and taking them into an uncharted cave system. Holly ultimately becomes so unwound and that racing toward what she believes to be sunlight, she falls and breaks her leg.

Sarah wanders away and glimpses what appears to be a figure sipping water from a pool. The figure skitters away before she can notify the others. Juno tries to convince Sarah that she was hallucinating again. When the women come across a chamber full of bones, their unease quickly turns to dread. Several humanoid creatures whose climbing ability is matched only by their ferocity attack the women, feasting on the injured Holly first. The group flees in different directions. While the others are devoured one by one, Sarah fashions herself a weapon and prepares to fight back.

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Production history
After making his feature film debut in 2002 with an ultra low budget werewolf movie called Dog Soldiers, Scottish filmmaker Neil Marshall realized that his debut had turned out as “more of a black comedy with some horror elements in it. It kind of went over the top.” While he considered Dog Soldiers along the lines of Evil Dead 2, Marshall wanted his follow-up to actually scare audiences. Deliverance, Alien, The Shining and The Thing all served as inspiration as he started work a script called The Dark.

Marshall had seen video footage of spelunking and felt that a movie set within the pitch black, claustrophobic recesses of a cave was ripe with possibilities. His cave explorers were to consist of men and women originally, but when someone asked Marshall why not make it an all-female ensemble, he loved the idea. After pitching it to Christian Colson of Celador Films, Marshall spent two years and up to fifteen drafts developing the script with the producer. Marshall felt the additional time helped advance the women beyond caricature and into characters that were much more human.

Celador provided $6.5 million USD in financing. After a casting process that took into account the physical rigors of the film – as well as actresses who would all be relatively unknown to audiences – shooting commenced in Scotland in December 2004 for the exterior scenes. The production then moved to Pinewood Studios in England for the cave sequences. Word of mouth was so enthusiastic that Lionsgate picked up the U.S. distribution rights two weeks before The Descent opened in the U.K. July 2005.

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Even in Europe, the ending split audiences. Marshall stated, “It’s kind of borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s original ending of Brazil, which is that concept of, what is a true happy ending? If that character in their own mind is happy, then is that a happy ending regardless of their physical circumstances? I found that really fascinating.” A less ambiguous ending was tested for U.S. audiences and when it scored higher, was used when the film was released stateside in August 2006 (both endings are available on the DVD.) The Descent garnered generally favorable reviews, but was mostly ignored by audiences.

Opinion
The Descent polishes off the horror classics of the ’70s and ‘80s that influenced Marshall and wears them like badges of honor to varying degrees, but the movie is so intense, so well crafted technically and so unique in terms of its atmosphere and characters that it qualifies as a new standard bearer in its genre. Much of that is due to the sensibility of the film, which boasts a female ensemble that doesn’t ask for help, doesn’t get help and lives or dies as memorably as men have in horror thrillers for decades.

The claustrophobia of the film is so unnerving that when the creatures attack an hour into the film, they’re almost anticlimactic. But the picture is well cast, appears to have cost three times what it did – with an underground cave network that looks like the real deal – and isn’t squeamish when it comes to bone crushing or blood spilling, with Macdonald emerging for a pool of it a la Carrie White at one point. David Julyan composed the ominous score, which judiciously tips its hat to Ennio Morricone’s work in The Thing.

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C. L. Coleman at Appreciating Great Trash writes, “I’m pretty hardened when it comes to movies trying to get me to piss myself, but Marshall frames everything with such perfect, awful constriction constantly encroached by a foreboding, looming darkness that the damn thing sends your pulse off-the-charts (assuming you watch it in the theater, which you really should). What Jaws was to the beach and Die Hard 2 was for planes, this is for caves.”

“For the seasoned horror fan, The Descent is decent enough; it’s just not all that as so many claim. It’s not going to redefine the genre, and it certainly hasn’t propelled Neil Marshall into the Hall of the Greats, such as Argento, Carpenter, (dare I say it) Fulci, or even Craven, as one prominent horror website so boldly claims. Sure, it’s okay, but it’s one film – let’s not forget Paul Anderson and Event Horizon,” writes Trist Jones at Digital Retribution.

Joel Pearce at DVD Verdict writes, “Ultimately, horror movies are about the experience, not the thinking. I’m sure there are some good spelunking documentaries for those of you who want verisimilitude. For the rest of us, it’s hard to go wrong with the white-knuckle fear and hard-R gore of The Descent. I would put it at the same level as Alien, which is very high praise for me.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Beasts and monsters · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Jun 21, 2008 at 7:31 am

    Dear # 1 son,

    I remember being lost in the dark piecing together the overall plot of “Cave”, and also wishing the theater I saw it in was much larger. Meaning, Marshall must have done his job well in conveying the movie’s the designed constricting aspects. Thanks to your illuminating review, I’d like to see it again in that entirely different light, and, therefore, put “Cave” on my “see again list”. Good job son.

    Take care and love,
    Dad

  • 2 Ibetolis // Jun 21, 2008 at 7:58 am

    Nice Review.

    When I watched this film in the cinema I had no idea what to expect, I haven’t been that tense and freaked by a film for quite a while. At one point, during that moment they’re squeezing through the tight tunnels, I could barely watch it.

    What a great film, I felt the final third was just a little O.T.T but I suppose that adds to it’s cult status. I’ve watched it a couple of times since and it still effects me deeply, hopefully we’ll see more films like this from Marshall, I think he has what it takes to make some real lasting work.

  • 3 Chuck // Jun 21, 2008 at 9:50 am

    THE DESCENT is the most primally satisfying horror film I’ve seen in years. It’s not the deepest, of course, but it gets in and scratches something that few horror pictures do. Marshall doesn’t let homage trump the tension, he finds his own ground. (He didn’t manage that in DOOMSDAY.)

  • 4 sir jorge // Jun 23, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    not bad, not bad at all, i didn’t really like it the first time around, but maybe it’s time for a second viewing.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jun 23, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Dad: If you go to the video store or scan the satellite cable listings, don’t confuse this with The Cave, unless you want to see what the bad American version of this movie looks like! It’s a completely different flick. Thanks as always for your support and intelligent commentary.

    Ric: Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. You make a good point. What sets The Descent apart isn’t the gore, it’s tension and mood, which push the audience – I think – to the breaking point. Too many horror movies take it easy on us, or maybe are just produced to appeal to 13-year-olds in the first place. Instead of replicating the style or content of the best horror movies, Marshall absolutely nailed their unsettling vibe.

    Chuck: I avoided Doomsday based largely on your terrific review. It sounded like a $3 rental as opposed to a $10 theater visit if there ever was one, however, you get no argument from me in your appraisal of The Descent. “Primal” sums this up perfectly. Thanks for commenting!

    Jorge: While the critics were just about unanimous with praise, you’re not the first moviegoer I know who didn’t really care for this movie. Maybe the hype had something to do with that. It’s definitely worth a second look, not so much for the monsters or the plot, but the craftsmanship and uniqueness, particularly when it comes to the original ending.

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