Droid defines the Decades best movies – #10 The Descent (2005)
I think it’s well established that I don’t like horror films. Other than a select few, I find the majority of them insultingly stupid, badly made and terribly acted. Sometimes I’ll watch them to laugh at their ineptitude, or in the case of ‘House of Wax’, to see Paris Hilton brutally murdered. ‘The Descent’ is one of the rarities of the genre. It’s smart, well written, features great performances and most of all, is masterfully directed.
A year after a car crash that killed her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) joins her friends Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) for a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. After a cave in blocks their only known way out, this group of friends must find their way to safety. But they are not alone down there, and they’ll have to start swinging the pick axe if they’ve any hope of survival.
As evidenced by that description, the story itself is simple. What makes ‘The Descent’ unique are the characters, and their relationships. The writing really is brilliant in the way it conveys and develops these characters without resorting to talking head exposition. We know exactly what Juno’s relationship with Sarah’s husband was, all from one look in the first few minutes. And the way the cracks start to appear on Sarah’s fragile state of mind makes her descent (Hey! That’s the name of the movie!) into madness feel believable. She’s a deeply disturbed individual.
The film is kind of broken up in to two halves. The first being the lead up scenes to the caving and the caving itself, which pretty much had me squirming in my seat. I’ll be honest. I only watched this for the second time tonight. The first was at the cinema in 2005. It’s scared the bejeezus out of me then, and it did so again tonight. I sat there thinking to myself, “there’s no way in hell I’d be caught dead wriggling my way through a tunnel underneath the earth”. The second half is the creature fest, where there are mistakes made by characters that will effect the rest of the story. One big one in particular.
What makes the film even more effective are the performances of the actresses. We like each character (although Holly’s a bit annoying), and from the get go we’re on their side and hope each of them can somehow make it out alive. I especially liked Beth, who doesn’t take shit, and Juno, who’s guilt and regret just keep piling up. Each character is very likeable, which makes it all the more horrifying when the monsters are unleashed.
As a sidenote, is it wrong in a film this good to let your mind wander to a situation where you’re the meat in a Natalie Mendoza/Lucy Liu sandwich? They look so similar that it’d be like shagging twins! Hummana! Hummana!
Neil Marshall has not only written a great script, but his direction is superb. Especially when we get to the cave. The scenes of the girls squeezing through the tight confines of the tunnels is excruciating to watch. It’s so well crafted that part of me wishes that the film didn’t have to unleash the beasties, and was just a tale of this groups survival after the cave in. But the hounds demand gore and they get what they want. The eye gouging! Sweet Jesus, the eye gouging! I want to make particular mention of the way Marshall uses not only the dark, but the vivid colours of the torches, glow sticks (doof! doof!) and flares. The way he uses the reds, greens and yellows help differentiate one scene to the next, which ensures we never feel that the movie is repeating itself. It’s very effective.
I would also like to make mention of the ending. The real ending that is. It’s absolutely brilliant and a complete kick in the guts after 85 minutes of mere punches to the guts. I can only assume that you’ve all seen this film, but if you haven’t I’m about to talk about something that will contain SPOILERS so please skip to the next paragraph. Okay? Still here? Good. The American ending is absolute garbage and makes no sense. The film is about Sarah’s mental breakdown, and what she does to Juno is her death sentence. Her character cannot survive after what she did. It’s a rule. I may have just made the rule up this very moment, but it’s now a rule nonetheless. Her act is essentially her giving up on sanity, and embracing madness. It’s tragic, but essential. The cop out ending betrays the laws of cause and effect that the entire film follows.
Sometimes I wonder about Americans. Honestly.
‘The Descent’ is nothing short of brilliant, and like the next film on my list, would rank higher if it wasn’t so difficult to watch. Which probably tells you more about me than anything else.
Note: Apologies if I’m repeating anything Jarv has already said in his review (here).
The list so far…