The golden age of horror: The Descent (2005)

Bill: As far as I’m concerned, The Descent has two monsters: the blind, inbred cannibals that make up the active participants in the downfall of our heroines, and the claustrophobic spaces within which this struggle takes place. I just wish that there was more of the latter and less of the former.

After the jump: John becomes Juno and Ben becomes Beth

Bill: I remember when The Descent first came out. It was one of those “word of mouth” horror films that folks discuss enthusiastically on fan sites and forums dedicated to genre films. Sadly, when I did eventually get a chance to see it, the hype I had been witness to before actually seeing the film worked against it for me. But I honestly don’t think ANY film can ever live up to the kind of hype that gets generated by those sites. So in order to be fair, I sat down and watched it again for this Halloween series. It’s been about a decade. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for objectivity, but surely that should be enough time, I thought. Maybe I’ll like it more? I found this second viewing, however, to almost mirror the same experience as the first. While I consider it a fun movie, I think the scares are sacrificed in an attempt to create an action film first and a horror film second.

Chris: I’m coming to The Descent a little differently. I remember the vague outlines of the publicity and discussions around from the US theatrical release, but not much else and so I’m coming at this from a fresh perspective I guess. Not just for the river raft scene at the beginning and not for the backwoods setting in the deep south did thoughts of the movie Deliverance cross my mind. Then we see the odd looks exchanged between Juno, her husband, and Sarah in that prologue and I’m even more intrigued. I appreciate that Neil Marshall (who both wrote and directed) is willing to be informed by other movies, but also seems to want to put a fresh twist on those influences.

Bill: I hesitate to call this one of the first horror films featuring an all female cast as I have to believe there are more than a few such films before this one, but it was an interesting choice by Marshall to transplant so many annoying male archetypes from a horror film into feminine hosts. That he makes it work without making it look like he’s pandering is even more impressive. But the real topper is that I actually liked these characters far more than I think I would have had they been the stereotypical group of college frat buddies with the ubiquitous hot girlfriend or two who lasts long enough to take off her top before getting herself killed.

Chris: It’s a unique and successful way to play this, right? The relationship between Juno, Sarah, and Beth is fascinating to me in ways that the typical all-male dynamic we’re used to seeing in horror flicks wouldn’t be. I love that there seem to be layers of history and subtext with these three, even if the movie never gets around to spilling all of it to us. I found that sort of depth missing from the rest of the group. Sam seems to be there so she can tend to Holly later on and Rebecca is there to be Sam’s older sister. Within moments of Holly appearing on screen in the very first cabin scene, you know she’s going to end up doing something reckless.


Chris:If the setup of The Descent brought me to thinking of Deliverance, once the group is underground I couldn’t help but notice parallels to another, more recent movie. With Juno rather heedlessly and selfishly taking the group into a dangerous situation and deliberately abandoning the map I couldn’t help but notice that suddenly we’re squarely into Blair Witch territory. That’s especially noticeable when Juno confesses all this. The group dynamic starts to fray. They know they’re lost, now. They’ve seen signs that maybe they’re not alone in the caves, and that something unknown and bad might be in there. Members of a group feel ready to turn on one another. At this point in the movie I’m thinking that I don’t need anything else, that this is a fantastic, claustrophobic horror setup. Marshall has other ideas, though.

Bill: Personally, I would have preferred less albino cannibal and more constricted crawl space. The fear of being trapped in a small space is a primal one for me, and for many others as well, I’d imagine. If you’re going to set a horror film within a cave that’s hundreds of feet or more underground, why would you play down such a thing? Other than a couple of scenes in which someone gets stuck in a small tunnel for a few minutes, the film seems to take place in one of the most carefully designed “natural” cave systems in the world. Complete with a chutes and ladders design that is so perfect that I’m surprised they didn’t cross promote the film by creating an iteration of the board game featuring the Cannibal Clampett family and…

…okay, yeah. That probably wouldn’t have worked. But you get the idea.

Chris: Is it weird to say that I was kind of disappointed when the troglodytes showed up? Like you, Bill, the claustrophobia when they realize they can’t go back the way they came felt very real and had me completely hooked. If The Descent wants to become a subterranean Lord of the Flies, I’m up for that! Then we catch our first glimpse of the albino cave creatures and I felt a twinge of a letdown. Oh. This.

Bill: Alas, overexposure is, as I mentioned earlier, a big stumbling block for this film’s monsters. If Marshall wasn’t going to use the environment in which these creatures exist as a source of any prolonged tension, he should’ve used their appearance (or a lack thereof) as a substitute. Instead, they seem to have an almost supernatural ability to find any spotlight and rush into it like some form of attention starved Morlock version of Norma Desmond. I kept expecting them to suddenly stand up and deliver a monologue half the time. For me, familiarity usually diminishes the horror when you’re dealing with something that’s supposed to look horrific. But, as I mentioned earlier (and in spite of having called it a horror film a few times), I really feel this is more of an action film than anything else. It’s like comparing Alien to Aliens. The latter is, in my opinion, a fantastic action film, whereas Alien was a horror film. That Marshall went on to do nothing BUT action films after The Descent seems to support that belief, I would say.

Chris: There sure are a lot of creature fights, aren’t there? That part of the movie actually didn’t put me off too badly, as Marshall shows an adept hand at directing those sequences, but I can see your point about where he takes the movie. I guess to my way of thinking, once we’ve introduced the bloody meat pit and seen the creatures up close, we might as well beat them up a bit. I did like how the creature fights set us up for a reckoning with Sarah and Juno, too. We can see it coming, and wonder how Sarah will square her hatred with the idea that they might need each other to survive.

Bill: The way Juno was handled confused me at times. I actually felt she got the short end of the stick. She didn’t mean to drive a climbing axe through a companion’s neck, and she only left that companion behind because she honestly believed she was dead. As for the whole affair subplot that was only hinted at, the last I checked that wasn’t a capital offense. She really did want to help everyone get out and tried her hardest to save many of them. So I guess you could say I’m Team Juno.

Chris: I suppose we need to talk about the ending(s) of the movie, huh? American audiences saw a version of the film that ends with Sarah escaped and in her car. We’re given a vision of the guilt that her traumatic experience will cause her the rest of her life, and fin. The original ending (and the one original screened everywhere but the US) continues on from that scene and we discover that the escape and car thing is Sarah having an Owl Creek Bridge dream. She’s actually still trapped in the cave. We hear the chittering of the creatures drawing in closer to her and know her eventual fate. I think there are good arguments to be made for either ending, but I’m curious which you preferred, Bill.

Bill: I absolutely loathe the Owl Creek Bridge method of ending a film. It’s been used by so many hack filmmakers that I’ve started to think it should become it’s own sub genre of thriller/horror movies. But given the choice of the happy ending and the bleaker ending for The Descent, I’m going to have to go with the bleaker one. It’s not the entire film that’s affected by Sarah’s daydream, just the last few minutes, so I don’t view it as egregious an offense in light of that.

Chris: A fair point, and it should also be noted that the implication of the truncated American ending is that Sarah is going to be haunted and emotionally shattered for life for having injured Juno and left her to be monster food. In interviews, Marshall has claimed that he finds that ending just as bleak. I’m not so sure, though. If I was Sarah and offered the choice, I think I’d go for the “not ripped open and eaten like a bag of jiffy-pop” option.

(The Descent is available to rent or purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)