The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

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Leading up to Halloween I’ll be hashing out some of my favorite horror films ranging from shlocko B-horror to luminous, elegant & eerie Gothic masterpieces, mainly focusing on those that may not have such prominence in pop culture consciousness as, say, Halloween does. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

The 2000s have produced only two movies that have scared me to the point of trauma: Verbinski’s The Ring which I saw opening night in theatres, and Neil Marshall’s The Descent which I saw last night, cowering behind pillows.  I woke up this morning, still scared…which makes for immediate grounds to enter it into the horror countdown.

A group of intrepid, thrill-seeking female friends reunite in the Appalachian mountains for a caving adventure and to support one of the women, Sarah, who lost her husband and young daughter in a car accident.  There’s much chatter amongst the women, a small subplot that hints at the late husband having an affair with one of Sarah’s friends but really, this doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that these women descend into a monstrously large and labyrinthine cave system that, as they will soon find out, is unmapped by man.  And they get lost, trapped.  And then the creatures appear. 

Frankly, this movie didn’t need a bunch of bloodthirsty, slimy pearlescent Gollums picking off the ladyflock to be scary; the frights that come along with their creeping entrance into the movie are your cheapest horror jumps ‘n bumps.  However, you’re gonna fall for them anyway because of the spell cast by the overwhelmingly smothering horror that the film carefully develops in the first hour.  Shrouded in blackness broken only by headlamps, the women wedge themselves through impossibly narrow cave tunnels as they wend their way through the system, only to find out after the harrowing collapse of their exit route that the ringleader of the group has led them into a cave system that is uncharted, ostensibly to give them the eventual glory of ‘discovering’ it for themselves.  As the weight of the true peril of the situation hangs heavily on them, panic rises up…both theirs and ours.  And then the cavethings show up to lead the proceedings more along the lines of your rote horror film formula.

This isn’t a perfect film, but it is un-be-liev-a-bly terrifying.  I’ve never, ever seen a movie so effectively manipulate everyone’s inherent, even dormant, claustrophobia so well.  Neil Marshall, I am duly impressed.  And traumatically scared.

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5 Responses to “The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)”

  1. dumbricht Says:

    I loved this movie when I watched it last Halloween. You nailed it – it’s the claustraphobia, not the monsters (which do get a bit repetitive once they appear).

    I didn’t love the ending when I saw it, but upon retrospection, it was the only way to do it.

    Other scary movie to watch REC.

  2. Miss Q Says:

    oooo, that’s one that slipped my mind for this exercise! The end of [REC] has one of the most frightening-looking zombies in all zombiedom, and its one of the few movies where the ‘shaky handheld cam’ framing structure works wonderfully. Good call.

    I agree on the ending to Descent- the only way to finish it properly, perfectly nihilistic.

  3. J-LG Says:

    I have to see this movie NOW! This sounds so cool.

  4. dumbricht Says:

    btw – REC 2 is in some ways better. Similar structure (same apartment complex moments after the last film ended), but an explanation that adds something to the “zombie” genre.

  5. Miss Q Says:

    I haven’t seen that, will definitely add it to my queue. Thanks!

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