Subgenre: Evil Beasts
The film: Sarah has a great passion for adventure sports, as do all of her friends. One afternoon, she and her best friends Juno and Beth go whitewater rafting while on vacation in Scotland, while her husband Paul and daughter Jessica cheer her on from the shore. After, while Paul and Sarah are taking Jessica back to their hotel, Sarah notices how distant Paul is. When she asks Paul what is wrong he shrugs off the question but gets distracted and ends up in a head on collision with another car killing him and Jessica but leaving Sarah alive and devastated.
A year later Juno and Beth invite Sarah, as well as their other friends Rebecca, Sam and Holly, to go caving in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Though Sarah is still clearly coping with her tragedy she reminisces with her friends over photos saying, “Love each day,” a favorite saying of her late husband’s. The next morning the ladies hike to the cave opening and are astonished by its size. Juno reassures them of the safety and they all continue forward. While taking a break, Juno attempts to apologize to Sarah for not staying with her after her family’s passing though Sarah is still distant. The group continues on through a tight-squeeze passage. Sarah, bringing up the rear, gets stuck initially, until Beth comes back to help; as they wriggle out, the passage collapses behind them and Sarah loses the bag containing most of the climbing ropes. Hyped up over the tension of the situation, Juno confesses that though she filed a flight plan to the forest service for safety the women are actually exploring an unmarked cave, in which they are now trapped with no seeable way out. Confident of success, Juno urges the group on, as their best chance for survival is to keep searching the cave. Juno tells Sarah the reason she led them there is because she wanted to try and repair their friendship, though Sarah rebuffs her. They come across a cave painting that depicts the mountain with two cave openings and the group starts to regain hope.
But soon they come to a precipice with a wide, cavernous gap separating it from the next side. They manage to get across, but Rebecca gets her hand ripped open when grabbing the rope of a falling Juno. Rebecca and Juno have both noticed a climbing hook left behind by someone in the cave, but as the equipment is so old they have no way of knowing if it’s a helpful sign. Certain that she sees daylight own the next passage, Holly hurries forward only to fall down a pit and suffers a compound fracture to her leg. Sarah sees some sort of humanoid creature and tells the group, who don’t believe her, that is until they are attacked by the vicious creature. Sarah falls and passes out. Holly gets bitten in the throat; Juno brandishes her pickaxe and tries to defend her, but in the confusion and the dark she accidentally puts her axe through Beth’s throat. Beth falls to the ground, grabbing Juno’s favorite necklace as Juno flees for her life. Juno reconnects with Sam and Rebecca but refuses to leave without Sarah. Sarah awakens to find Beth still alive who tells Sarah that Juno axed her and left her behind. Sarah doesn’t believe it until she sees Beth holding Juno’s necklace, a pendant that reads, “Love each day.” Sarah comes to the realization she had been avoiding about Juno and her husband, continuing through the cave with an agenda preceding survival on her mind.
Fear factor: The Descent is such a deceptively simple moving, a life interrupted horror film about girlfriends who go caving and get attacked and slaughtered by bat-like, inhuman cretins…, which is a massive part of its appeal. The relatively green writer/director Neil Marshall made a movie out of a collection of interesting ideas that flowered into something so unintentionally elaborate (and open to intellectual interpretation), serendipitously making him into one of those great fanboy/auteur directors like Quentin Tarantino or Peter Jackson. He cited one The Thing as one his inspirations for the film, with the obvious parallel with two settings that are both intractable and shut of from civilization. But what the stage for this movie offers compounds the terror beyond isolation and helplessness: that location-inspired fear turns threefold with the claustrophobia and is by far the greatest sense of unrest throughout the movie as well being so sneakily scary. Tight, cramped, rocky spaces – in pitch dark. Marshall was lucky to engineer a film that afforded so many interesting opportunities that ended up having great payoff like this. Another is certainly the guerilla lighting techniques; just when the darkness couldn’t get any freakier, one of the ladies lights up a red flare and the audience is shifted into a world invaded by a horribly red, blaring light like a Dario-Argento nightmare. Pegging this movie as creature horror is easy, but the creatures, ghoulish and frightening as they are, are relegated to the backseat of this movie. This movie gives its viewers no peace; even during the reflective moments of the film, the time to build up and flesh out the characters, sudden and violent car crashes and vivid nightmares slap you in the face. If there’s anywhere that the movie is lacking is that the lovely ladies look the same in the dark and become hard to tell apart until you’ve seen the movie a couple of times. In a sense though it’s still good to see character development, which is a bit helpful when trying to distinguish the faces in the dark. And I must say that I personally believe that choosing an all female cast adds that extra level of relational tension – women under pressure can be pretty terrifying unto themselves – and the best part is that the characters could just as easily have been men, eliminating the pressure of feminist subtext and instead letting it evolve naturally as part of the story. The Descent is in all certain terms one unnerving-awesome-genius rollercoaster ride. And if you watch it and don’t like, I hope you at least understand enough to respect it; it may be a fluke, but its one hell of a brilliant one.