This Isn't Caving, This Is An Ego Trip: The Descent (2005)

I am beginning to commit to enjoying horror films, I am fully aware that it seems contradictory to a cinephile to enjoy horror movies, because by mainstream standards they are regarded as a lesser genre, one that is constantly pumped out and fills the space of movie theaters, in most cases, with garbage.  Furthermore, I have in the past talked about a "horror renaissance," and am certainly not the only person to provide such terminology when discussing the genre and its seeming disappearance over the past few years.  I am fully committed to now recanting that statement and claiming that there have been a solid set of horror offerings over the past decade and some change, we are just foolish as cinephiles to expect them to manifest themselves in a manner similar to that of say the eighties where gore ruled all and over-the-top was a must.  I think it is often a problem of fans of that era to assume that classic horror films of that era were the only thing to appropriate such stylistic choices, when, in fact, most every film from the 80's adheres to a high degree of showiness, even when it is meant to be serious and dramatic, think about Cinema Paradiso and Amadeus as primary examples.  I say all this to bring up The Descent, a relatively overlooked horror film from 2005 that is quite enjoyable and does little to undermine the tradition of the horror genre, in fact, aside from its setting it actually embraces most of the tropes of the horror genre, especially all of the elements that made the 80's one of the high moments for scary movies.  In fact, excluding a few new ways of scaring, I would say that The Descent is a viewer's guide to all the ways to scare in a horror film, which may suggest that it is lesser in its repetition, but its decided post-modern approach to the genre is damn scary in its execution, because while writer and director Neil Marshall certainly uses traditional ways to get you to jump out of your seat he seems to have everything a second or two off kilter making the scares deliver at the most unexpected moments.  The Descent will scare you and just when you think you have been provided the worst moments in the film they manage to extend a bit longer, not to mention, this is one insanely gory movie and man does it embrace that state of mind.

The Descent follows the experiences of a group of thrill seeking women who spend their time exploring the wild outdoors, attempting to navigate new landscapes and untapped territories.  However, during their most recent trip Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) experiences tragedy when during the return home, her husband dies in an intense and traumatic car accident, leading to her being hospitalized.  A year later, Sarah is invited to go caving with her group of friends, as a means to move on and forget about her tragic events of the past.  However, it is clear that even though she is attending the trip her psychological state is far from sane.  Nonetheless, the group undertakes a night of partying and boozing before heading on their trip, to a cave, which the group's optimistic leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) fails to mention has been unmarked.  The descent, from which the film sort of draws its name, is relatively uneventful at first, aside from the occasional scare of bats or rock slippage.  Yet when it becomes clear that they must enter into the smaller portions of the cave to advance further paranoia begins to rise within the group, particularly Sarah who begins to have panicked visions of her past traumas, as well as visions of things moving throughout the cave.  After an accident immobilizes one of the members, it is revealed that Sarah's visions were far from imagined and that the cave is indeed occupied by humanoid creatures who have a desire to destroy and devour the occupants of their cave.  One by one the creatures pick off the members of the group, until it is only Juno and Sarah left, whose friendship was already at odds when Juno revealed her desire for naming the cave in their honor.  In an act of vengeance, Sarah attacks Juno with a climbing spike, leaving her stuck waiting for an eventual death at the hands of the creatures.  Sarah manages to escape and in a panicked state makes her way the group's car and escapes, however, when she pulls off to the side of the road it is made apparent that this escape was all but real and that her visions of insanity may have been much deeper than initially assumed.

I mentioned that The Descent has a title with a dual meaning.  The obvious one being that it is about a group of women descending a cave, whereas the second refers to one woman and her descent into madness after the crippling sense of loss when her partner dies.  Of course, that is the metaphor that extends throughout the film, because as many know, good horror films exist to exploit the hell out of a metaphor and The Descent does it with unadulterated commitment.  For example, the creatures themselves could represent Sarah's own blind rage, one that is intent on destroying everything in a state of vengeance, misguided and inexplicable it is a sort of feeling of injustice that if not properly attended to could explode into serious issues.  Furthermore, her fractured relationship with Juno is not necessarily reflective of her deception regarding their planned locale, but, instead; a result of her failed help as a friend after her husband's death.  As both Sarah and another friend note, Juno disappeared immediately after the accident as opposed to saying the length of time appropriate to help Sarah through her mental breakdown.  Therefore, her act of revenge against Juno in the closing moments of the film has a possible second layer of "pinning" her down for her own previous indiscretions, allowing her to no longer use mobility to escape, one could argue that by attacking Juno, Sarah has forced her to face her evasiveness.  While the other characters seem secondary in this critique they are certainly not that, in fact, I would argue that they also represent an extension of Sarah's psyche, or better yet problematic ways in which she could have dealt with the tragedy.  For example, one girl is aiming to be a doctor, perhaps a metaphor for the problems of treating Sarah as a fragile being in constant need of care, whereas another addition to the group is a woman who navigates each moment as though it is a singular detached experience, perhaps a failed approach Sarah might have taken after her husbands death.  Regardless of these readings the closing of the film suggests that any and all efforts were in vain, because Sarah succumbs to the darkness of her descent, one of loneliness and inevitable death.

Key Scene:   For as many scary moments in the film, perhaps the most creepy moment comes rather early in the film.  Suffice to say, it involves a window and boy did it stick with me.

This is an excellent film and one of the better horror films of the past decade.  I strongly encourage you to pick up the cheap bluray, it is certainly worth more than its price suggests.


  1. Good review. You began it nicely, "it seems contradictory to a cinephile to enjoy horror movies." hahaha :D
    Would like catch up with it sometime.

  2. I say that because I know many friends and respected film critics who seem dismissive of horror full-scale. They often want to place it in the same category as an Ozu or Welles film, when, in fact, most films simply do not compare. While I would never claim that The Descent or most horror films are of top 100 all time standards, they certainly have their merits and deserve continual viewing and some much needed love.