Released in 2005, The Descent is a British horror movie that does away with haunted mansions, abandoned asylums, handheld cams, and other tired horror tropes. Instead we follow the spelunking (what a fun word to say) adventures of six women as they stumble into an uncharted cave within the Appalachian Mountains. This novel premise is executed brilliantly as the film delivers on its promise of a unique and horrifying story.
This review will look at the good and the bad of the film, followed by its triumph and bravery within the over-saturated horror genre.
This film is scary, and it doesn’t rely on jump scares or CGI or little girls with long black hair to be so. Instead we are forced to put ourselves into the characters’ shoes thanks to the lighting (or lack thereof) and cramped and narrow spaces so prevalent throughout the film. The resulting experience is something primal and unnerving, given how easy it is to imagine what it’s like to be in that cave full of small tunnels, big chasms, and claustrophobic spaces. I don’t know how to explain it, but showing us the tight spaces was infinitely more effective than having objects move on their own or making hospital lights flicker erratically.
Another thing that was great were the monsters’ designs. I won’t spoil it here, but the baddies here are something a little bit different than your typical horror flick creatures. Their introduction was magnificent, as we only get subtle clues that the girls aren’t alone in the cave, contributing to the overall tension in the first half of the film, which is the main reason this movie succeeds (and which we’ll talk more about later).
The last quarter of the film unfortunately devolved into a groaner. Many parts felt arbitrary and conformist, including a particular character’s death, the climatic betrayal, and the ending. One of the prevalent motifs of the film was the main character’s inability to get over her daughter’s death (which happens in the beginning; which reminds me: she never even spares a single thought for her dead husband), but this theme was executed poorly, showing up in spontaneous flashbacks that had no bearing on the main plot. A car accident really has nothing to do with the fact that you’re stuck in a cave. Sure, you may want to say that escaping the cave may symbolically represent Sarah getting over her grief, but that’s a pretentious stretch that is not supported by any other character nor by the context of the film. The main threat are the creepy-crawlies, not Sarah’s own inhibitions and self-doubt.
Speaking of which, character transition was abrupt and unbelievable. Sarah, who is suffering from depression and has uncontrollable flashbacks, suddenly becomes a cross between Ripley, Lara Croft, and Sarah Connor after taking a bump to the head. How is a normal person able to become a skilled monster killer within the space of five minutes, especially a person who is dealing with heavy emotional problems both from the past and the immediate present? The supporting cast was more believable in their reactions, especially Juno’s as we get to see her transformation into a wild and unhinged survivor firsthand. Sarah’s, by contrast, felt jarring and out of place.
Lastly, the ending was disappointing, and the integrity of gamobo demands that this fact be stated for the record. There could’ve been so many other endings to choose from, and even in this case a happy ending would’ve totally been appropriate, but instead they opted for something that felt disappointing and uninspired.
So many horror movies fail to grasp the concept of build-up and tension. Many movies rely on cheap scares and imitations.
The reason The Descent was such a success is because the film understood the requirements for making an audience feel dread and fear. Thanks to the unique premise we don’t know what to expect, because cave exploration ain’t one of those common hobbies like making bad home videos or getting your daughter possessed. Because of the novel setting of the film the shots are allowed to be dark and constricting, lending to the atmosphere and overall visual experience. On top of this natural suspense we come to understand that they are not alone in the cave, and even when we meet the monsters their weakness makes them even more suspenseful. Interjecting all of this are the signs of group discord, which worked way better than Sarah’s confined psychological problems.
All of this showcases the film’s acceptance of the mantra that the audience’s imagination can do more to scare themselves than anything you show on screen, and within a deep dark cave inhabited by a new and unknown creepy-crawly species, there’s plenty of space for your imagination to run amok.
Watch it! Highly recommended for horror fans looking for something a little bit different, with a decent story and a plot that actually makes sense. We don’t need to talk about what the excess blood represents nor the fact that there are only female actors in this movie, because the film simply works as a horror film, and being entertaining is really the only prerogative of cinema, horror or otherwise.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.