August 5, 2006

Movie Review: The Descent

Posted in Movies at 12:40 am by Calico Jack

About two months ago, I saw a trailer for a horror film that had been released in the UK over a year ago and was now headed over to the States. The trailer had some of the standard horror-film cliches, but it did show a few glimpses of what could be truly frightening scenes. As the release date drew nearer, I started to hear some great buzz for the film; early critics were raving about this movie and how it was supposedly the best horror film in the past five years. I haven’t seen a good horror film since…well, I can’t really remember — maybe 28 Days Later. I skipped Hostel, because it looked rather depraved in its aggressive depictions of gore for gore’s sake. Saw had one truly scary part, but the rest of it was just crap. And I won’t even talk about teen slashers like Final Destination or Wrong Turn; those shouldn’t even be considered horror films. That’s the problem with so many horror movies today; they focus less on atmosphere and buildup, and more on seeing who can display the most blood. I just wanted to see a solid, scary man-versus-monster film. In the case of The Descent, it’s woman-versus-monster, and I can honestly say that this is the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time.

Unlike so many other movies in the genre, The Descent takes its time setting up the characters and the story instead of jumping straight into horror. Shauna MacDonald stars as Sarah, a woman who suffers a horrible tragedy and reunites with her friends a year later for a caving expedition in the Appalachians. The first third of the story is spent getting to know these six women and a little bit about their personalities. Yes, there is actually exposition in this movie; I was as shocked as you are. And these women aren’t the stereotypical blonde bombshell bimbos that diligently serve as shrieking bait in most horror films. They’re intelligent women with varied personalities, and it’s a testimony to the skill of the writer/director Neil Marshall that he is able to so quickly sketch each person as an individual in so short of a time.

The women start to explore an uncharted cave, and as they go farther in the tension level mounts quickly. Marshall refuses to light the caves like most directors would; the only light sources come from the women’s headlamps, flashlights, and flares. This serves wonderfully to enhance the atmosphere of growing dread, as many times you can only see the bodies of the women surrounded by oppressive darkness. And as the women squeeze through long, narrow tunnels of rock, a potent sense of claustrophobia sets in. I’m not afraid of small spaces at all, but as I was watching The Descent I realized that I never want to go caving like that. If you’re claustrophobic, I strongly urge you to stay away from this movie; it’ll scare you before it’s even supposed to scare you. This was over half an hour into the film, and I still hadn’t seen any sign of the cave monsters. But the unease was palpable, and the tension kept racheting up. Then the women get trapped in a cave-in, and this is where The Descent really starts to take off. The growing dread that they all feel is now outright panic and horror as they search for a way out. But little do they know what awaits them…

If I were to write any more about the plot, I’d be giving too much away. But I will say that once the monsters are revealed, Marshall grabs the audience’s heart rate and never lets go. The Descent jumps around among nail-biting suspense and terrifying “Boo!” moments, followed by long sequences of bloody, intense action scenes. This jerking around of the audience’s expectations is marvelously done; I can honestly say that as I watched, I had no idea what would happen next. The Descent is merciless in its treatment of its characters and relentless all of the way to the end, giving the audience no time to breathe.

I do have two minor quibbles with this movie. First, I would have preferred there to be a bit more time between the first quick sightings of the monsters and the full reveal. It comes as a surprise, to be sure, but I think the tension could have increased even more if the audience had more time to freak out about little glimpses shown on-screen. Second, the U.S. version of The Descent had its ending altered from the original British version; the U.K. movie has a minute added on to the end. I didn’t like the ending of the American copy very much; it didn’t seem to flow well with the rest of the movie. But that extra minute in the British version makes everything fit much more nicely, and in some ways it’s even darker than what American audiences were able to see. I hope that the DVD has both endings on it, for those of us who were able to view the British version online.

Having said that, however, The Descent is a very scary horror film that likes to wave a knife at the audience’s neck for half of the movie before going straight for the jugular. Such a long set-up before the terror is very effective, and once the screaming starts it never lets up for a minute. This is what a horror film should be like: confident in its storytelling, yet straightforward in its ruthlessness. Throw in a healthy dose of claustriphobia, lots of darkness and shadows and eerie lighting, and pools of blood (literally), and you have a recipe for some serious terror. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart; but for those of us who like to be scared every once in a while, The Descent does a masterful job. B+.


  1. You do such a fantastic job with your movie reviews. For this being my first horror film, I think I handled it pretty well-much better than others in the theatre. There were many terrifying moments and unexpected twists and turns, but that’s what makes a great horror movie. This movie definitely shouldn’t be viewed alone; it’s more comforting to have someone there with you who you can hold onto during the most intense moments. I gave it a B+ too; we think so much alike. 🙂

  2. Daryl said,


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