It has been quite some time since the first time I watched The Descent (2005) directed by British director Neil Marshall. Neil’s previous work includes the popular underground hit Dog Soldiers (2002). It pleasantly surprised me the first time, so this retrospective will be interesting to see if it holds up after all of the years. We’ll get into this later, but there certain facts about me that make this movie more terrifying than a lot of things that I can watch. At the time of its release, The Descent felt like a bit of a fresh breeze compared to the standard fair that was popular at the time.
Remembering the Horror of 2005
At leas form me it felt like horror in 2005 was struggling. There were some bright points like Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Depending on tastes, Eli Roth launched his torture porn franchise, Hostel. On the other side of the coin was a tired jump-scare haunted house formula be layered on-top of an Amityville Horror (2005) retread. George Romero’s highly anticipated return to the Land of the Dead stumbled face first. These are among the few notable entries that barely rise above an ocean of straight DVD films and forgettable low-budget films.
To be honest, I was a bit disconnected at the time, so if 2005 was your year, let us know in the comments.
The World Above
The film starts with a bang, or rather a traumatic crash. After wrapping up a weekend white water rafting trip with her girlfriends, a woman named Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) gets into a deadly car accident. Her daughter and husband are killed both instantly and horribly. As the events unfold, a bit of foreshadowing a occurs that also suggests that Sarah’s relationship with her husband might not have been what she believed. A close eye also reveals an underlying subtext between Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Sarah. Neil Marshall provides a jarring and emotional kick-start that also provides a foundation for later events.
Rappelling Into the Abyss
One year later after the tragedy, Sarah is not emotionally ok. She decides to reunite with friends, Juno, Sam, Rebecca, Holly and Beth, to go cave exploring. Her friends hope that resuming their adventures together will help Sarah on her path to recovering after the tragedy. The terror begins almost immediately. Within moments one of the amateur explorers gets stuck in a suffocating passage, and the film is already deeply entrenched in uncomfortable territory. Being stuck in a cave is one of my greatest fears. We haven’t even gotten to the good bits, and my anxiety level are through the roof.
Then the inevitable happens, the tunnel collapses and women are cut off from the world. As they discuss their predicament, they quickly find out that Juno took them to an unexplored cave system rather than where they had planned. This cave system is not frequented by rangers, and their prospects for rescue approach zero. With their only known egress closed off, they must find another way out. Remarkably, these adventure hardened women do not give in to panic and trudge forward into the dark abyss of the cave.
They Are Not Alone
As if their situation is not dire enough the women soon discover that they are not actually the first to enter this cave. They find very old gear from previous adventures. They then discover ancient cave painting that suggest that there is another entrance. After a brief glimmer of hope, the audience gets is first indication that something else lives in this cave, and it’s probably not friendly. Soon after, the troop find out for themselves when they come across a lair filled with the bones of dead animals… and humans.
The first good look at a cave “Crawler” is terrifying. Blinded by centuries in total darkness and pale translucent skin from never having seen the sun, the cave is filled with monsters that hunt only by sound. Food delivery doesn’t come around very often, and they are ravenous. These creatures attack with speed and cunning and, their prey are hopelessly trapped in their dark, damp world.
Neil Marshall’s Horrific Tapestry
Neil Marshall and his production crew do so many things well with The Descent. It all starts with the decision to have an all female cast. And let’s be clear, these are not the standard off-shelf horror girls. These are capable and determined women with the tools for survival. Neil Marshall seems intent on sending the message that a strong male figure would not improve this situation. On the flip-side, he delivers this message with care. What we see in his cast are the women that we know in real life. These are not a bunch of Ellen Ripley’s, just strong women tenuously in control of their destiny.
Marshall does a fantastic job slowly ratcheting up the peril. It all starts with the tunnel collapse, which by itself is terrifying. The thought of being trapped in a cave with no escape makes my claustrophobic skin crawl. Shortly after, Holly suffers a broken leg, piling on the challenges already facing the women. When the Crawlers are finally introduced, the girls are already in a deep morass of trouble. Neil Marshall then doubles down when Juno accidentally kills one of her own friends. Marshal then finally splits the adventures, adding one last dimension of despair. The audience tetters on the literal edges of the their seats.
Neil Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, do a wonderful job of using multiple perspectives to make the plain of the cave interesting. Some shots are made with frantic bustling of the camera, but it’s not overdone. Some scenes are lit with the yellow glow of a head lamp, while others bask in the cool green hue of florescent glow sticks or the orange flicker of flares and torches. Still others are shot through consumer grade night-vision on a hand-held camcorder. Too much of any of these techniques would be disorienting and unpleasant to watch. By breaking it up, they make the confines of the cave beautifully terrifying.
This all comes packaged with an ending that is as satisfying as it is shocking. For the viewers information, we watched the U.S. ending, not the extended U.K. ending. Call me old fashioned, but I liked the U.S. ending better.
The Descent – A Really Freaking Good Horror Flick
Needless to say at this point, I love this The Descent. Neil Marshall gives the audience a simple and easy to digest monster movie with artful direction and artistic vision. While it relies on jump scares, he layers on smothering claustrophobia and fear of the dark. I will stop just short of calling it masterpiece, as it lacks some of the intellectual punch that films of that caliber often have. However, in 2005 it was just what the languishing horror community needed. I recommend this one paired with a dark room, blanket and someone to hold on to.
Big Time SPOILERS
Ok, our research indicates that there is a bit of controversy over the various endings to this film. I weighed in this post and wanted to explain my position on the matter. Let’s take a look.
The altered U.S. ending basically stops short of the expanded ending. Sarah buries a climbing pick into Juno’s leg presumably because of her affair with her husband and because of her culpability with respect to their current situation in the cave. She clamors to the exit of the cave as Juno gets ripped to pieces by the Crawlers. Eventually, she takes a spill that seems innocuous at the time. She quickly scampers up and out of the cavern, screaming and slightly insane. Eventually she finds the truck and makes her final escape.
The final punctuation point comes in the form of a jump scare Sarah sees a vision of a shredded Juno in the passenger seat. The End.
Now for the original extended ending. Picking up from the jump scare, Sarah awakens on the floor of the cave. Her escape was just a dream, but her visions persist as she sees her daughter holding a birthday cake before her. In a brilliant transition, the birthday cake is actually her torch. Her daughter disappears and Sarah presumably dies in the cave as the Crawlers close in on her.
My opinion of the extended version is that the bold move of Sarah to killing Juno loses all of its punch because both women were destined to die anyway at the hands of the crawlers. In the original ending, she breaks bad on Juno in cold blood just a few hundred feet from the goal line. In the other ending, Sarah just buys herself a few more minutes to suffer the same fate alone. She basically killed Juno on Juno’s walk to the electric chair; big deal.
I do agree that the jump scare with Juno was a bit lame in both endings. It would have been better if omitted all together.
People in support of the extended ending claim that it does a better job of tying up the relationship of the car crash to all future events. It’s a fair claim, but does it really? I mean, there’s the birthday cake thing, but it’s not much. The smack-down that Sarah lays down on Juno effectively closes that loop without the ambiguity of her visions. To be honest, with Sarah’s visions being what they are, it’s fair to question whether or not she killed Juno at all in the extended cut. It’s even fair to wonder if Sarah got separated and never saw another soul again in the cave… too much uncertainty.
In this case, explicit is better than implicit.