The Descent

(Neil Marshall, 2006) What makes The Descent one of the most effective horror movies to come out in years? Intimacy. It’s captured here in every form: the intimacy of a constrictive space; the intimacy of death at close range, from both friendly hands and maws not quite human; the intimacy inherent in the trust spelunkers place in each other when they gather in dangerous isolation; and the intimacy director Neil Marshall has with his six characters. That he knows these women is evident in their truth of form; spend time in any well-to-do nature centre and you’ll meet these people, exuberant in their Oakley. The Descent delivers classic psychological and visceral horror — we shudder at its claustrophobic crawlspaces before we even begin to recoil from the milky humanoids who’ve adapted to life belowground. When six explorers descend into a cave system, there aren’t enough pick-axes in the world to save them from creatures who use echovision to track them in the murk.

We know where the film intends to go — Marshall gives us a classic slasher-cum-zombie film, too — but we’re taken there through unexpected byways, and we resist the destination the more we get to know the women, whose physical strength and resourcefulness are convincing. And this movie is very much about its women. With its womb/sperm imagery and ambivalent maternal tropes, The Descent needs its all-female cast to grind out a pseudo-feminist subtext. (It also really needs its original international ending, not the focus-grouped result shown to American audiences.) There’s good use of ambient sound in this picture, and great use of chiaroscuro that sometimes bleeds to red. Praise Marshall for reinvigorating the art of the jump-fright in such a richly atmospheric film. That’s not an easy combination to pull off anymore. — Ranylt Richildis

(Originally posted on In Review Online on November 1, 2009, as part of their Best of the Decade in Horror feature.)


2 thoughts on “The Descent

  1. You are right on the money with this review. I think, as others have noted, there was a stronger possible film there with the creatures not there at all, and simply play it man vs nature and man vs man as the group inevitably turned on each other. However, Marshall did accomplished what he intended.

    Loudly second you re: the international ending. A similar thing happened with Paranormal Activity and the worse ending wound up in theaters. I feel bad for all the people who just aren’t aware they didn’t get the authors intended vision thanks to last minute executive meddling.

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