A descent of both the physical and the mental kind, Neil Marshall’s 2005 look at a caving expedition gone horrifically wrong is a truly harrowing and claustrophobic film. Six thrill-seekers attempt to explore a series of uncharted caves and unfortunately run afoul of a race of bloodthirsty, albino humanoid creatures who have seemingly lived in these dark caverns for hundreds of years.
The Descent could have gone a number of ways, but I think Marshall handled the story very well for the most part. There is no attempt to sex up the all female cast and each character is developed extremely well, given the limited time we have with them before they start being torn apart. We see how much they care for one another (in most cases) and the pure abject terror they feel when encounter these horrible creatures underground. As the events of the first few minutes show, yes The Descent is a violent horror movie, but it’s also one with a heartbeat. It displays instances of real, believable emotion and a humanity that other genre films seem to lack. Shauna McDonald’s turn as Sarah is a real heart-breaker. She loses everything she cares about within minutes of the film’s opening and before she even has a chance to recover, she’s dropped into a pit of absolute horror with only the sheer will of her own survival instinct at her disposal.
The cave monsters’, more aptly-dubbed Crawlers’, physical appearance is an unsettling high point of the film. I like the fact that the effects artists seem to have given the monsters a lot of thought. I think they managed to come come fairly close to what a primitive human would look like after evolving in an environment of subterranean darkness.
The Descent isn’t without its drawbacks however. Even though the Crawlers are frightening, they lose a bit of steam during the second act due to overuse of the dreaded jump-out scare. For a good twenty minutes it seems like the movie’s really taken a turn for the worse and become mired in typical mainstream fodder. Marshall manages not to show the monsters for better than half the movie, but once we see one, we’re treated to more than a few cheap scares that really take the wind out of the film. But only for a short time. Once Sarah finds herself separated from the other remaining survivors, The Descent regains its footing as we see her reduced to her primal self. Shauna McDonald excels in these scenes, expertly teetering on the brink of madness, a portrayal reminiscent of Marilyn Burns as Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The final act of the movie is really an intense experience and more than makes up for the sag you might feel in the middle.
Marshall tells a great story here, one that will leave you feeling somber when the credits start to roll. The Descent is a bit more emotional than the average horror movie, but I think that’s only to its advantage. If more filmmakers produced movies like this, with real emotion and a sense of character, I think our beloved genre would finally gain the respect it deserves.