I haven’t done a recommendation for a while now and there’s a good reason for that; I like going back to great movies I’ve seen, but I’ll always prefer to see something new or something I’ve yet to see. I’ll occasionally go back for a watch along someone who hasn’t seen a movie or because I’ve recommended something and felt like watching it again. For me, this category should be reserved and difficult to justify for most movies, because they should be special; The Descent is one of the best horror movies I have ever seen, so it can’t get any more special than that.
Usually, I try to keep things vague because the point is to convince others to take the plunge and give something the time and focus it deserves; in the spirit of that, this paragraph will be spoiler-free and cover most of the best features of the movie, however after that it’s spoiler-town and I’m discussing everything in detail. The Descent was written and directed by Neil Marshall, and stars Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza (amongst others). It follows Sarah and her group of friends, who after a terrible accident a year prior, decide to go cave dwelling as an attempt to reconnect and get through some rough times. In theory, The Descent has a character-driven story that goes through the entire movie and can be easily be broken down to two main horror subgenres; a slow-moving, claustrophobic, thriller about a group of friends trapped in a cave, and a fast-moving, gorefest, when things go haywire. Practically, The Descent is one of the most effective horror movies ever made and that is mostly down to one of the best cinematography works ever, a writer that deeply cared about the characters and had a fundamental understanding of the horror he wanted to create, and a perfectly cast crew that sell every single emotion and ground it in believability despite their completely bonkers predicament. Add the excellent directing and soundtrack, the endless stream of iconic moments, and the actual intended ending, you get a nearly perfect movie whose only real missteps are production values on the cave sets and a few tonal issues of how the subgenres are switched. Those weak of heart be warned, this is a seriously terrifying experience almost executed to perfection; the rest, this is your last warning as you are about to descent to the spoiler-cave…
With movies as widely loved and appreciated as The Descent, its pretty hard to find something new to say or add to the points already made, so I’m not really going to try and I’m going to pick on the features I found the most engaging; if I retread covered ground, I am sorry. There are so many visually stunning moments in this movie that it is not really worth gushing about them here, because they are so widely adored by fans, but I would like to pick one; green lights. Obviously, the gore effects and the red flares are more widely associated with the movie (and for good reason), but I love how the green lights mask solve a lot of problems the crew had to deal with; the production values on the sets are only a problem in the first part of the movie, when natural-looking light is reflected on paper-Mache looking rocks, however once the bright lights start popping off surrounded by pitch-black darkness, then the movie’s atmosphere (that has successfully gotten under your skin) masks all that “cheapness” by scaring the crap out of your mind. Moreover, the green lights do a great job at making the creatures in the cave look sickly and unnerving. These are creatures that were modelled to look like Nosferatu and under the red lights or fire, they look grittier and more dangerous, but surrounded by the green lights, hiding in the cave, stalking the group, they feel like tricks of the mind. Even when they move, it still feels like you are imagining things; then, that imagination drops from the ceiling and bites your neck off.
Beyond the visual aspects, The Descent features some of the strongest writing in horror; it’s not flashy or over-the-top grotesque like its visuals, but it is effective and understated to great effect. As most fans would agree, The Descent refers to the literal descent down a cave and the allegorical descent of the characters into madness and the deepest depths of their personal fears, regrets, and traits. This is reflected in what “actually” happens and how the audience can interpret that through the lens of characters and allegory. What I love most about the writing is how ruthlessly self-serving it is; those silly mistakes made in horror movies are usually made under duress or waved away by dumb characters making dumb decisions, but The Descent works really hard to keep the convenience and effectiveness of those tropes and mix them in as decisions made by characters. For example, Juno’s decision not to take the guide book with her is shown as one of those mistakes, driven by her arrogance, however it is revealed that she did not take it because she did not bring the group to the promised place. This works two-fold for representing Juno’s motivations and traits as a character; throughout the movie, we see her as someone who wants to keep the group safe and be their leader, however this reveals that it only is the case if the group need her (which they now do) and only if it is self-serving of her. When she later accidentally wounds Beth, she leaves her to die, even though she can still help her, because that would be proof of her loosing her temper and not being the leader the group needs to survive this ordeal. This is the sort of quality the movie needed to shift between a slow-moving, claustrophobic, cave-dwelling thriller where the walls close in on characters and the dust obscures the vision, to a high-octane, goretastic, shocking, slasher with Nosferatu creatures and literal pools of blood; it is instant and effortless, which is why The Descent is so special.
I even adore how open to interpretation the movie actually is – not in what goes on, but whether those events have actually happened as depicted. For example, when Sarah finds Beth and she reveals Juno’s actions and past with her dead-husband, Sarah fails to believe it and then is immediately attacked by one of the creatures; this time, however, not only is her gender made clear by her anatomical features, she also has long, black hair – a feature missing from all other creatures and only shared by Juno. Having said that, I don’t actually think the whole movie is an allegory, but it has cool little details like this one that add dimensions to the story and make rewatching the movie more interesting.
That brings me nicely to my final point. Just like an overwhelming majority of great horror movies, The Descent is actually a great drama mixed in with horror elements. Sarah’s tragedy of losing her daughter and husband manifesting throughout the movie, like the small moments of sadness in her face when other characters speak about wanting a family; Juno losing her illegitimate lover causing her to disappear from her friend’s life when she needed her the most and leading her to overcompensate (creating deadly consequences). Even smaller (or less dramatic) character conflicts like siblings Sam and Rebecca having a strained relationship due to Becca’s overprotectiveness and Sam’s desire to show her worth without a safety net. The deaths (gruesome and freaking brilliant from a horror perspective), reflect this as well; Beth gets fatally wounded by trying to stand besides her friends in the most difficult moments as that is literally her only discernable character trait (or in the allegory reading, Juno killing her is a reflection of how Juno’s actions and Beth’s cover up killed her for Sarah); Sam dying by doing what her sister did previously only much more difficult (since there is a Nosferatu rushing towards her) with less protection and not having the necessary tools even; Becca immediately giving up as soon as she sees her sister dead, as if that was her only reason to live; Holly (Juno’s protégé) being portrayed as a reckless, adrenaline junkie injuring herself being reckless and not being able to protect herself; Juno getting her “hero” moment when Sarah impales her leg and leaves her to die faced with a dozen of the creatures; Sarah (I am not taking into consideration the existence of Part Two), loosing herself in her grief and “completing” her descent into the darkest corners of her psyche.
There are so many points I could get into – like the many Ripley moments Sarah has and how awesome they are or the brilliant acting – but I’m going to stop now, because if you’re reading this then you know most of these already (hopefully, because otherwise you’ve robbed yourself of a great horror experience). So, yeah I would recommend The Descent; it’s pretty good!