The basic plot of The Descent (2005) is as follows: A group of women (Natalie Mendoza, Shauna MacDonald, Alex Reid, Nora Jane Noone) go on an annual extreme outing. The expedition leads them on a spelunking trip into an unnamed cave. What begins as an incredibly tense and claustrophobic trip through the cave, ends as a blood strewn battle against batlike monsters.
The first section of the film is undoubtedly more effective than the second. The tension building up to the arrival of the monsters has a stronger presence than the monsters themselves. While the creatures may be creepy upon first glance, once you get a good focused look at them they quickly stop being threatening. The girls put up a fight and surprisingly do fairly well. Or at least two of them do. They do more damage than these monsters and are able to evade them without too much effort. That’s not to say the second half is bad, it just takes a different route than the rest of the movie. Before the monsters show up the film is a taut, tense ride that really evokes feelings of doom and after the monsters arrive you can think of the film as more of an action horror movie.
The unrated version of the film is fantastically gory and while it isn’t particularly scary, it is still very dark and the action can be intense. It turns into a fun action-horror movie towards the end which does lessen the impact of the horror but it’s not really a bad thing.
The major strength of the film comes from the first half: The tension building, cave exploring half. The Descent manages to evoke a deep seeded feeling of claustrophobia in the viewer. My favorite part is actually a sequence in which each girl is crawling through an incredibly small crevice between the rocks. The tension is palpable. The effect is even further enhanced through the fantastic direction and camerawork.
I was very surprised to find out that there was not a single real cave in the film. It is 100% sets. The production designer deserves an award for his work on this film. There are very few times when a rock doesn’t seem to have the proper weight, or a large rock wiggles a little bit, but I just attributed that to extra additions. Fake additions within a real cave, for safety purposes, but no, it’s a totally fake cave. Don’t go into the film with that in mind. You can still buy the cave as real.
The lighting is superb. Normally lighting isn’t something I feel the need to mention but this is a special case. This is a very dark movie, in terms of lighting as well as subject matter. Many horror films are darkly lit, but The Descent has perhaps the most valid reason to do so. They took a smart approach and mainly just lit the scenes with what the girls view within the scene. They are in a pitch black cave and it’s often lit only by the character’s headlamps, flashlights, glow sticks, flares, or torches. It made filming difficult, but it was worth it as you can really get pulled into the atmosphere of the movie.
The exploration through the cave is edge of your seat intense. A strange thing happened when one of the characters fell down a hole. I worried what happened to her. Without my knowing, I grew at least slightly attached to these characters. I cared what happened to them, I cared for their lives and I wanted them to succeed. Most horror movies are unable to accomplish this. While there is not a great deal of character development, there was enough that they each had enough of a personality for me to root for them. Usually these kinds of films throw subtlety and characters right out the window, but The Descent managed to have both. I really wanted to see these girls win and that made the experience much more intense and satisfying.
The Descent is not a perfect film. It has some low budget sensibilities and the American ending is horrible, but it is a great deal better than the majority of horror films coming out these days and that’s more than I can say about the sequel The Descent 2. The American ending is just plain stupid, using a horror cliche that feels completely out of place and contradicts the tone. While the European ending still has the bad cliche, it extends the sour note effect that is much more suitable to the film.
Neil Marshall, the director of The Descent, put a lot of time and care into the film. He did a very good job and managed to make an entertaining horror movie that I can highly recommend.
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