“The Descent”: In the destructive element immerse…

[originally published in Queen Anne News, August 2006]

I was telling my friend about The Descent, one of the most authentically terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years, when she called a halt to my rhapsodizing about its scare tactics. She wasn’t kidding. Movie stuff that comes oozing up from the darkness behind the brain seriously freaks her out. So how come I’ve loved hair-raisers since forever? What’s in it for me?

Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but genre classics) … and coming back alive. A film like this breathtaking British stunner works like a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving The Descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that, rephrasing Dylan Thomas, we do not have to go gentle into that bad night.

"The Descent" - into the caves
"The Descent" - into the caves

The Descent opens with instant kinesis: a trio of women, high on risk and adrenaline, fighting their way down extreme rapids, while a man and a little girl watch from a nearby bluff. Director Neil Marshall clues you in from the film’s exhilarating get-go that his tough, resourceful heroines are larger than wives and mothers. Forget the sidelines: these women game hard, testing their physical skill and courage to the limit.

Scant time, after leaving the river, to chill out before what feels like a scene of riskless calm is horrendously shattered. You’ve hardly settled down from mastering those wild rapids before getting body-slammed by a terrible tragedy out of the blue. The movie nails down — in your nerve-endings — the difference between courting danger in extreme sports and the way everyday killing violence comes unbidden, without warning.

A year later, six women, including the three river rafters — one of whom is still grieving for her dead husband and child — meet up in the Appalachians to reforge their friendship during a spelunking expedition. Juno’s the self-appointed head of the tribe (singer-dancer Natalie Mendoza), a physically fit, competitive sports junkie, if a bit weak on fellow-feeling and loyalty; witness the subtle hint that she misses Sarah’s husband more intimately than she should.

Frequently fantasizing a birthday image of her lost daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) pretends to conviviality but seems half in the grave already. Sarah’s close pal Beth (Alex Reid), punk-thrill-seeker Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), veteran caver Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and her sister Sam (MyAnna Buring) fill out a smiling group snapshot. That early-morning, pre-expedition picture frames these strong, attractive women in a defined zone of safety and light, antithesis of the chaos, madness and claustrophobia in the nightmare to come.

Such a pleasure to watch women at work who have skills and physical strength: they rappel gracefully down into the cave’s depths and, facing a crevasse, young Sam agonizingly muscles her body across, setting pitons as she goes. Later, when Sarah gets stuck in a narrow “pipe,” Rebecca calmly talks her out of her hysteria with a joke (“How do you give a lemon an orgasm? Tickle its citrus”). Sure, there’s tension among these modern-day Amazons, but for the most part they function as a competent team — a distaff collaboration rarely celebrated in cinema.

A rockfall forces them deeper into the bowels of the cave, into ever-more-narrow wormholes. Crawling in the dark, squeezed by a constricting frame, straining at every splash of water and sound of alien chittering, you can’t catch your breath and your muscles ache with tension. It’s like being buried alive.

"The Descent" -
"The Descent" - a distaff collaboration

The Descent takes its time, allowing you to savor the real-life adventure of cave exploration, to enjoy the company of women the buffed likes of which you meet these days in hiking and mountain-climbing clubs. No screamers, no weak sisters, no sex-crazed victims or Freddy Krueger fodder as in far too many scary movies.

Beautifully paced, photographed and designed, The Descent avoids every tease and cheat that contemporary horror films rely on. Though there’s gore galore, it’s integral to a tale rooted in awful human possibility, not simply the end product of mechanical slaughterhouse moviemaking. Clues that something unclean and hideous inhabits these caves come incrementally as the women descend, half-seen in the red and green flares that momentarily illuminate the dark. An unidentifiable silhouette of a misshapen head in the foreground, drooling thick liquid, a dead-white homunculus glimpsed at the end of a tunnel … and then reality suddenly, irrevocably rips apart, letting in the unthinkable.

Under demonic assault, the tribe disintegrates, each woman separated from the others, civilization and sanity devolving into savagery, primal acts of survival. Mining iconographic images from Deliverance, Carrie and Aliens, The Descent turns hallucinatory, metamorphosing into a medieval vision of hell, a subterranean womb/tomb where ravening maggots rule and birth, death and resurrection come at an awful, blood-drenched price.

The Descent falls in the tradition of David Cronenberg’s early, great films of terror, which immersed cultural, psychological, spiritual, even gender certainties in the horror genre’s destructive element in order to get at the bloody heart of the matter. The Descent brings us back to the hard, cold truth our secular age prefers to keep buried: sophisticated, cynical, ambitious, jealous, brave, loving — doesn’t matter; in the end Everywoman’s food for worms.

Note: The Descent has two alternate endings. The original version, screened in England, is darker, more demanding and, I think, grander. Americans apparently require a reprieve from terminal horror, so our Descent ends with a more “upbeat” conclusion.

Kathleen Murphy

[editor’s note: See Kathleen Murphy’s Alternative Horror Movies Consumer Guide on MSN for more her recommendations of some lesser-known horrors]

© 2005 Kathleen Murphy

"The Descent" - birth, death and resurrection come at an awful, blood-drenched price

One Comments

  • Bruce Reid

    October 26, 2008

    The Descent deserves all its praise, but I know I’m not alone in thinking Marshall’s set-up is almost too strong; the grinding relentlessness drops off a bit when the monsters come along. As barely glimpsed beasties they’re terrific, and our first full-on view in the video camera is one of the great moments in horror movie history. But as a threat and source of terror these pale, screeching fellows, however impressively fanged, can’t compete with the brutality of the caves, dropping off to bottomless canyons or constricting to impassible canals with majestic indifference to the gnats crawling through their guts.

    Bit unfair to slag on a film for doing something so right it throws the rest off balance, I suppose, but nightmares are much less disturbing when the monster in the cellar proves less of a bother than navigating the rickety steps down.

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