Descent, The (2005)

Starring Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder

Directed by Neil Marshall

There are a lot of things to be afraid of, real and imagined, and I love the horror genre for showing it all off whether you want to look or not (and we all know you’re gonna look). I love horror for many reasons, one being that it reminds us fear isn’t always some diabolical creature conjured via intricate verse or born of the blood of virgins. Sometimes it’s simple and we remember that fear can be very basic.

Neil Marshall’s latest film delivers both ends of the fear spectrum… at the same time.

The journey of course begins above ground and what effectively ensures that The Descent continues to shine within its own darkness is its dual vision of fear. Exposing the all too real horrors that lurk right under our feet and within our minds, The Descent gleefully pushes us over the edge and directly into a ghastly, surrealistic nightmare that can only be compared to Hell itself.

Opening on an adrenaline high are Sarah, Beth, and Juno, thrill-seeking friends who brush up against death and peril for fun. The scene of these women whitewater rafting and looking almost insane with their excitement while Sarah’s husband and daughter look on is disturbing to say the least and helps set a tone for both hope and disaster. When a sudden horrific car accident claims the lives of Sarah’s family, she is severed from life, and the three friends become estranged.

Sarah’s personal loss is the first of several nightmares to unfold over the course of the movie, an incredibly important piece to the greater scheme. When you really consider that loss and morbidly ask yourself “what if that were me?” is when you’ll really start to understand the kind of terror The Descent has to offer because how many other answers outside of “I’d go crazy” are there?

One year later Sarah is traveling to the US with Beth to reunite with Juno and three more women equally interested in adventure, and this year’s thrill is caving. The manic, careening drive to the cave marks the movie’s second beginning and keeps the momentum going, generating more uneasiness while adding a shroud of dread to the imminent exploration.

At this point the women are still coasting on hope, a group effort to close gaps and maybe recapture some of what was lost when Sarah’s husband and daughter were killed. Turns out it’s only a mere alcohol prep before the high grade goods are mainlined directly into your bloodstream where they’ll run a gamut of emotions including apprehension, optimism, suspicion, terror, and, finally, simultaneous despair, triumph, and defeat.

While The Descent certainly utilizes plenty of things you might tell yourself to look for in a movie set within a cave, don’t expect any real predictability as it won’t make much of a difference whether you saw something coming or not. Anything you might be picking out moments before is just padding for the visceral goods. Suffocating scenes which prove all too well that the dark is indeed still scary and claustrophobia is a very effective sympathetic fear. I also want to emphasize how excellent the score is and how much of an integral part it plays in amplifying the tone of each scene. It’s perfectly tuned: graceful one minute, despairing the next.

And just when you might begin to think that there’s too much realism going on, be prepared to hearken back to what I said earlier. Remember what may or may not have lurked in your childhood darkness, around your bed, and outside the protection of your blankets.

Remember “when” and be grateful for the splendid occasion when this genre that I love so much quietly creeps up on you while you’re busy marveling at the hideous face of reality and screams directly into your blood-drained face before ripping it clean off.

4 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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