To see this prologue out of a context relative to the “horror film” stigma is to see a director thoroughly engaging with the immediacy of his characters; to acknowledge them here, in a movie that at its core is basically just another story of creepy creatures hiding in the shadows, is to find oneself participating in the conventions of a genre with a new sense of enthusiasm. Because their humanity is relatable beyond physical presence, the audience is genuinely inquisitive about their plights. And as the movie descends ever-so-gradually into a plot that will push them to the brink of a living nightmare, the depth of our interest says just as much about our ability to remain objective as it does about the movie’s own narrative skill. Seldom do movies of this nature ever take the time to evoke a sense of realism in the details, and then ground them in the faces of plausible and sympathetic identities.
Then again, “The Descent” already does far more than it is required to anyway. Here is a movie so precise and cautious with its material that every moment, every suggestion or action, becomes an experience that involves us to alarming lengths. This isn’t a horror movie at all, but a human story where horrific things beyond comprehension simply happen to nice people. Utilizing the strategy of gradual conflict building, it recalls the meditative nature of “Alien” while marrying it with the careful mental disintegration of “The Shining.” For a relatively new filmmaker like Marshall, this lends credence to the notion that the future endurance of these kinds of stories may, realistically, become interesting again in the hands of new voices that sit outside of the mainstream studio influence.
The first departure, in a sense, may lie in the decision to cast the film entirely with female leads. One of the unwritten rules of horror movies involves an underlying sexism: if the survivors are not burly or macho men, then they at least got to that point by depending on those types in crossing the juncture. “The Descent” immediately casts off that possibility by, instead, honing in on six female friends at a cabin deep in the woods, all of whom share a certain friendly intimacy. They are thrill-seekers: adventurous sorts who enjoy the extreme sports aspect of nature, and they have all gathered, months after Sarah’s tragic loss, for two reasons: 1) to take her mind off of the grief; and 2) to go exploring in a nearby cave system as a means of strengthening their friendships. They banter, exchange witty remarks, and occasionally observe Sarah’s muted excitement with quiet sympathy. To them, the deaths of her husband and daughter are also like white elephants in the room that need no discussion; to Sarah herself, they inspire a sense of mental wounding, and throughout the movie she catches herself hearing a child’s laugh in the distance, or – more blatantly – getting caught up in a recurring vision of her daughter blowing out birthday candles while surrounded by darkness. That it follows her until the film’s final moments is an affirmation that Marshall cares as much for his players as he does the scares.
Nearly every scene of the movie is saturated in craftsmanship. The establishing shots, all photographed well, evoke a sense of great spaces above ground hiding menacing interiors. The score does not overburden characters with unnecessary thumps or chords in the soundtrack. Details – like the use of a camera with infrared, or the discovery of medieval trinkets in the dark depths – are used as framing devices for later scenarios. Marshall’s screenplay also spends a good deal of time getting to know the six women well before their excursion, and as they begin the trek up the hills and into the cavern system, there is no sense that the movie will disrupt their endeavors through any supernatural means, because the narrative is so deadpan. And yet as their expedition goes awry, the movie refuses to pump up the visual adrenaline until the exact moment it needs to. They meet with dead-ends, get confused by multiple passages, and are nearly crushed to death when rocks start collapsing in on a narrow path that they are crawling through. Not until one of the women hears a clicking noise in the distance and uses her flashlight to catch the sight of some blurred figure in the distance, in fact, is the movie clear about its final intentions. And that’s perfectly acceptable; like the great “Alien,” this is not a movie burdened by the modern sensibility to rush through its material in order to get to the graphic parts.
Nor is it burdened, for that matter, in glossing over details in between. Throughout the ordeal, from its sobering origins to its horrific evolution, added facets absorb these women that seem rebellious to the nature of 21st century creature features. What movie like this nowadays, for example, would even bother with a lengthy scene in which the women come to the edge of a cave with no bottom beneath it, and are required to rig a line across a chasm that can only carry one of them at a time? Who would see the relevance of including discoveries like a cave painting or an iron helmet? And when the film finally transitions to that obligatory moment when the ladies come face-to-face with the creature that is stalking them, who would bother recalling the silent conflict between the two leads? It is the very audacity of “The Descent” to keep focus on these specifics that make the film so refreshingly disturbing. The third act is a gorefest with an even more threatening context: because the girls must depend on one another for their own survival, a terrible secret like the one that exists between Sarah and Juno will likely undermine them in a moment that requires unity.
As for the creatures themselves? Without spoiling the physical details, they inspire another degree of thought-provoking questions. Who are they? How did they come to arrive here? Why do they essentially possess the physical traits of men and women rather than ordinary animals? Are they alien, or humans devolved over ages? That the movie does not answer such inquiries is not an evasive impulse, because there is simply no point in finality: they exist in this reality for the sake of characters exercising personal demons, and hopefully long before they are collectively consumed by the carnal instincts that surround them. The last shot, which adds doubt to that possible outcome, no doubt cements the director’s ambiguous cause. Nine years have come and gone since “The Descent” first found its way into theaters, but the movie continues to possess unwavering strength as both a horror film and as a study of human behavior in the most dire of circumstances. For any film of this nature to achieve both so late in the cinematic game is more startling than words could convey.
Written by DAVID KEYES
The Descent / **** (out of ****)
Horror/Drama (US/UK); 2005; Rated R for strong violence/gore and language; Running Time: 99 Minutes
Shauna Macdonald: Sarah
Natalie Mendoza: Juno
Alex Reid: Beth
Saskia Mulder: Rebecca
MyAnna Buring: Sam
Nora-Jane Noone: Holly
Produced by Keith Bell, Christian Colson, Ivana MacKinnon, Paul Ritchie and Paul Smith; Directed and written by Neil Marshall