Posted by : Patrick | October 1, 2014
When I think of a great horror movie, the first thing that pops into my mind isn’t Jaws (my favorite movie of all time) or Alien (which I’ll be discussing in the future) or even Silence of the Lambs (a Best Picture winner). While those are all outstanding classics, my thoughts usually tend toward a small British film I was lucky enough to see in theaters based upon a whim and some good reviews: 2005’s The Descent. Six women decide to spend their yearly adventure vacation spelunking in the caves of the Appalachian Mountains, trying to get past the previous year’s tragedy. What they find is more than they bargained for, as there is something else down there with them, deep in the darkness below the earth…
I can’t get enough of this type of setup: a small group of people trapped in a confined space, beset by external forces, must work together as a team to survive. A simple, elegant, and effective take on the haunted house scenario, horror like this is a great opportunity to explore group dynamics in emergency situations. When the chips are down and our lives are on the line, how do we really act? Do friends stand by each other, possibly to the end, or will they do whatever it takes to save their own skins? This is what can truly frighten: discovering what we thought was solid ground is in fact not. Director Neil Marshall got some practice with this on his previous film, the low-budget Dog Soldiers, but he really nails it with the much more refined The Descent. His first stroke of genius was to make all the characters of one gender. This does two things: it removes any sort of sexual tension from the story (sorry guys, no lesbians), which smartly allows him to develop actual characters independent of some ridiculous romance that wouldn’t and shouldn’t exist under such dire circumstances, and it gives him the opportunity to explore a very specific type of dynamic, those of female friends. When these bonds are severely tested, how will they hold up? There are many movies like this with male groups or mixed groups, but very few with all women. Agree with his take or not, it’s at least interesting.
The next thing he wisely does is build a proper foundation. The movie starts off with the aforementioned tragedy, which has a profound affect on nearly all the characters and dictates elements of their behavior for the rest of the movie. This moment is crucial, and provides emotional stakes that immediately invest the audience into these people. They all (and one in particular) have our sympathy, which is kind of important when you’re supposed to root for them to live, right? With so many films full of obnoxious teens or idiots, a group you could actually see yourself being friends with is refreshing. That’s not to say they don’t have their issues though, and Marshall spends a good deal of time in the beginning establishing these. He also uses his environments in support, slowly constructing his nightmare as tension mounts, a feeling of dread cast over the whole expedition through the misty forests, rocky hills and culminating with the gloomy black depths of the cavern itself.
Horror is tough thing to do well, as evidenced by the amount of absolute schlock out there. Scary is often subjective, and what one person finds frightening another sees as silly. As a result many filmmakers lean on crutches that they know can support cheap thrills. Musical cues, jump scares and shock imagery make up the entirety of the horror hack’s repertoire, and their overuse has diminished their effectiveness to the point that they’d have trouble curing the hiccups. The Descent is not above some sparing use of these, but only in support of the real terror it has instilled beforehand. Yes, there’s something living in those caves, but by the time the characters (and the audience) are introduced to it they have already been through the wringer. Instead of relying upon a very fickle monster phobia, the movie plays off universal instinctual fears: claustrophobia, the dark, being hunted, being alone. The first half of the movie is steeped in these, with scenes more uncomfortable than any gore-filled dumbass slasher film could possibly hope for. A brilliantly constructed set leads to tunnels that seem impossibly tight and collective breaths held. Foreshadowing of the psychological effects of prolonged exposure to subterranean depths and the darkness has us questioning what is real and whether panic is truly justified.
Turns out it is. The Descent is a sort of monster movie after all, and there’s no disappointment on that end. These creatures are more believable than most, a sort of evolutionary off-shoot, distant cousins of The Time Machine‘s Morlocks. Frighteningly humanoid, they are at once easily identifiable and eerily alien at the same time, a far cry from the lumbering beasts of other, much stupider films (you know who you are). Their initial reveal is a scene I will not soon forget, an expert use of misdirection with characters already on the emotional brink. The ability to lurk in shadows, masters of their environment, and enough intelligence to understand the situation make them formidable predators indeed, making an already desperate situation seem next to impossible.
With each moment the characters of The Descent become more and more trapped, the noose tightening around their collective necks. Through it all the we watch, helpless, our own breaths difficult to take. This is how true lasting horror is attained. For those of you who like scary movies, what are you waiting for? I can’t recommend The Descent highly enough.