What Dies Beneath
Though it enjoys a positive reputation as such, The Descent can only be called a monster movie with a major caveat. Like The Blair Witch before it, it wrings at least half – if not more – of its horror from its ominous setting. In this case, it’s the labyrinthine caves of North Carolina, an alien, impossibly dark environment that’s one of the movie’s most indelible characters.
We open with an idyllic scene of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her outdoorsy group of friends at the end of a white-water rafting trip in her native Scotland. After her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) picks her up, a nasty car crash kills both him and Sarah’s young daughter. One year later, Sarah and her friends, along with a few tagalongs, meet in the Appalachian Mountains for a cave trek organized by alpha-female (and token American) Juno (Natalie Mendoza). What begins as a simple-if-intense underground hike goes horribly wrong when a cave-in cuts off the group’s exit route. To make matters even worse, Sarah and the others soon realize that they aren’t alone; the cave is crawling with monstrous humanoids.
Writer/director Neil Marshall, a seasoned horror craftsman, is merciless in the way he uses the underground setting, never forgetting its inherent terror even after the monsters are introduced. The first truly scary scene – the aforementioned cave-in in an especially tight passage – is a claustrophobic nightmare, creating a nerve-racking situation and then exploding it into full-on terror. Though not without narrative, The Descent’s primary concern is atmosphere, plunging the audience into its hellish world. Sam McCurdy’s cinematography hauntingly depicts the caves’ few sources of light – namely, the off-white flashlights and brilliant red and yellow flares – among the suffocating darkness.
The monsters aren’t even hinted at until the movie’s halfway mark, and at that point there have already been several pulse-pounding scenes using nothing but the landscape. In keeping with the visuals’ commitment to conveying the caves’ pitch-blackness, we rarely get more than a moment’s glimpse of the creatures, but they’re a triumph of creepy, less-is-more design. Human-shaped but with clammy white skin, sharp teeth, and glazed-over eyes, they’re an evolutionary offshoot adapted to survive hundreds of feet underground. Most notably, they’re completely blind, and the movie uses this trait to stage some unbearably tense sequences.
But The Descent’s most unique quality is its narrative sharpness. Our band of cave-divers is a refreshing step up from the usual collection of cannon fodder in similar movies; the group is well-rounded and unclichéd enough to keep the deaths affecting and unpredictable. Naturally, some of the women get bigger parts and deeper characterization than others. The most compelling of the bunch are grief-stricken Sarah, her loyal best friend Beth (Alex Reid), and tough-as-nails Juno. Marshall manages to weave an effective, compact human drama among the chaos, showing tight visual storytelling skills and spending just enough time to create characters worth rooting for – and against.
When it comes to tone, The Descent has the best of both worlds, with a first half that’s a harrowing-yet-restrained survival thriller and a second half savage and visceral enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty horror fans. Thanks to the well-drawn ensemble and deliberate pacing, the spectacularly brutal climax feels both earned and surprisingly weighty, skillfully resolving the story’s internal and external conflicts in one fell swoop. There are plenty of suspenseful horror movies out there, a fair share of intelligent ones, and countless gore-fests, but The Descent is the rare entry which succeeds as all three.