10 Years: “The Descent”

Horror films are hit or miss as it is. Finding genuinely good ones seems to be harder with each passing year, even if a handful do succeed and make it appear that horror is experiencing some kind of comeback. Finding a horror film that can repeatedly scare you, in the same way as it first did, is even harder. Once you experience a truly scary or disturbing film, it doesn’t mean you’ll find it scary once more. That type of horror film, is even rarer than genuinely good ones.

The Lionsgate film “The Descent”, is still a terrifying film that’s crafted so well it should be studied by other filmmakers looking to get into the horror genre.

This horror film stars Shauna Macdonald (“Danger Mouse”, “Howl”), Natalie Mendoza (“Americana”, “Midsomer Murders”), Alex Reid (“The Tunnel”, “Vera”), Saskia Mulder (“The Descent: Part 2”, “Holby City”), Nora-Jane Noone (“Identicals”, “Brooklyn”), MyAnna Buring (“Ripper Street”, “Prey”), and Oliver Milburn (“The Royals”, “Inspector George Gently”).

The film was written and directed by Neil Marshall (“Tales of Halloween”, “Centurion”).

The film originally opened in the U.S. on Aug. 4, 2006. Before this the film debuted at various film festivals and in various countries thought 2005.

I know there could be debate on whether this film’s now 10 years old, or if that already passed, but since I usually go off of U.S. release dates, I’m going to say it’s now turned 10! It’s exciting, mainly because I’ve been waiting the past eight months on top of all the months from last year to watch this film again. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here’s another film I haven’t seen in some time, that I’m now getting around to. I honestly don’t know how this keeps being a thing, but it is, and sadly, I doubt it’s going to change.

Something else that I doubt’s going to change over the course of the next 10 years, is how much this film is able to scare me. I wasn’t sure this film could do it, not even a tiny bit, but I was wrong. I’ve never been so pleased to be so wrong.

I guess what makes this film scary could depend on who you ask. For me, it’s mainly about the build up. The suspense once these women get into the cave and start exploring. Sure one of the women gives a primer of what it may be like in the cave, claustrophobic, really really dark, hallucinations could happen, and some other things I can’t recall, but I don’t think I believed, even now, that these elements could actually prove useful for scaring me.

Each element, along with the crawlers, worked its way under my skin, and that’s what made it possible for me to be scared. We’re just going along and things seem fine, but slowly, as these women go deeper and things start to occur, which they weren’t expecting, and this doesn’t even include the crawlers yet, the feeling of being there gets real. Helping me, which I wasn’t sure it would be as effective, was that I drew my curtains and blocked out what sunlight there was when I pushed play. I don’t think I could’ve come up with a better atmosphere. What really got to me, was after Noone’s character Holly, falls and gets seriously injured. This compound fracture did me in. It was such an unnerving scene, and I never fully got over. At times I couldn’t even look at the screen, which usually is the case with compound fractures being depicted. Enter the crawlers, and things were unleashed! Sure there was still suspense, but the all out crazy drove most of it. I was never sure when something would happen, probably the closest thing to being surprised, and I was rewarded. However, and this I wasn’t expecting, I did find the suspense start to dissipate. Sure I was on edge, but not as much as before. In some ways it’s because the type of film I was watching had changed. It was all about survival.

Now, I can’t talk about being scared without mentioning the crawlers. I loved them, mainly as they weren’t just thrown in. There was suspense sure, but some of this was the mystery of what was also in the cave with them. You only got slight glimpses, and heard some sounds, all of which were definitely creepy. Then it was about revealing them to us. The first, which I love, was as the video camera panned and the crawler was standing behind one of the women. Super creepy! Effective still, too, even if it didn’t totally have me jumping. From there it’s more about your fear, as well as the character’s fear, about where these creatures will show up next. Even then there was still some decent execution.

Along with the execution of suspense and creature reveals, there’s the even more important creature makeup. The creatures were actually brought to life by people. Actors. Not CGI. I know, right? Surprising. I thought everything was a CGI creature these days. Fortunately for all of us, and those that discover the film later on, these creatures are brought to frightening life because of prosthetics and other makeup. We call them practical effects. It’s what I love about some indie horror films. Not much of a budget, so you can’t waste it on useless CGI. It’s typically cheaper to do practical effects, and that’s an area of filmmaking that’s pretty much a lost art form. Anyway. The effects are good. These crawlers are scary. They look so real! I’m amazed at what was done, and am glad there were people willing to sit for hours to have this applied to their person. I’m not sure what type of film we’d have if it weren’t for this creature design, but I’m thinking CGI would’ve been the alternative. The fact that these women got to act, not just with something tangible, but other people, and see the terrifying design, makes for more terrifying encounters. There’s certainly a much more noticeable sense of danger.

While all of this danger and scary execution, there’s something just as important at work. It’s also something quite rare, much like having an all female led, or predominately female, horror film. It’s the emotional human drama that comes through. It’s there from the beginning. You’re met with laugher, joy, fun, followed quickly by a deadly car accident. This affects all of these women, as they know the victims, especially Macdonald’s Sarah. This grief is still evident when she reunites with them some many months later. It could be a year. I’m not sure if the film specified. Regardless, after Macdonald arrives with Mendoza and they all start to catch up, and we essentially meet the characters, it’s when you learn so much. These women are close friends. They do so many outdoor activities together, which is how we find ourselves in this film. But it’s through this, as well as the start of their collective journey to the cave, that you don’t simply find them likable. You really learn who they are individually and as a group.

More important than that, it’s also how this film progresses. This film, unlike so many horror films, doesn’t just care about its characters, but uses the characters lives, their friendship, to push the story forward. I never once thought that the various relationships weren’t organic, or that what was occurring in the film wasn’t because of these adventurous women. Even after they get trapped by a cave in and the creatures start to terrorize them, there’s still enough drama going on. Most of it’s because of their circumstances, and the need to get out alive, but it gives you so much insight into who they are. Who’s more impulsive, calm and focused, tougher in a crisis, or fighting to survive. I certainly found it exhilarating watching Mendoza kick some serious crawler ass! She’s definitely the smartest one there, followed closely by Macdonald. But it wasn’t just that. That opening of the film, wasn’t for nothing. It follows Macdonald all the way in, and the others can see this. It never goes away.

It takes a lot of work for me to be so affected by so many elements of a horror film, but it if they’re done well, I’ll be affected each and every time I watch. I may not be sure if I truly cared too much for the characters, like I may if this were a drama, but I must’ve, otherwise how could I react to the gore, claustrophobia, scares, and other aspects of being stuck in a cave for over an hour? I may not have been completely shrouded in darkness, but adding that element to the other existing unnerving ones certainly gave me the closest thing to be where these characters were. Miles underground, with no way out. Why can’t more horror be handled in a similar fashion, but with so many different types of stories and characters drawing us in?


2 thoughts on “10 Years: “The Descent”

  1. I’ve been talking about this movie today! We discussed how the suggestion is far better than the execution of gore. But both of those things are done very well in this movie. This is such a great review, I really agree. The score is very clever, too.


  2. Excellent thoughts, especially on using actual people for the creatures instead of CGI and the development of the characters. One of my all-time favorites and a real test for any claustrophobic. Can’t believe it’s already been ten years.


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