The Descent Review
There is something primal about the fear of the dark. An instinctive fear of what you cannot see. Logically, we are told, there is nothing to fear but fear itself, but that means little to the child that cannot sleep without a night light. Their fear is tangible; there is something in the darkness, something monstrous and something so frightening that to bring it into the light would be to invite madness. It is a fear we have all had at sometime in our lives, even if we no longer acknowledge it. This is the fear that Neil Marshall has tapped into with his low budget British film The Descent, fear of the dark, fear of that monster we know is there, but cannot see. And just like that small child, we too as adults will cower and wish and loath for the light in equal measures, for The Descent is not only asking us to brave our primal fear if the dark, it also revels in showing the monster to us. Nothing to fear, but fear itself? Come, let us descend into the darkness, for there madness awaits.
Beware there are spoilers in the main text.
The film opens with three friends enjoying the exhilaration and thrill of white water rafting. Immediately after there are hints of infidelity between Sarah's husband Paul and Juno, before a horrific car crash which involves the married couple and their daughter. This car crash is wonderfully voyeuristic, filmed from the back seat, we can see the collision happening before it transpires, you feel yourself calling, willing the driver to turn; all to no avail, death by copper piping in a ghastly and tragic event. This happens all within the first three minutes, neatly setting the tone, just in case you were thinking this wasn't a horror film; the death itself is a cringe worthy, sick inducing moment. One could almost use these few minutes as a pattern of the film as a whole, thrill and exhilaration followed by bone chilling and ghastly death; only it takes a lot longer than a car crash.
One year after these events the girls with a few friends meet up in the Appellation Mountain range in USA to go pot holing. They are seeking thrills and spills and an adventure below ground. Juno, an experienced pot-holer, makes the decision to take the group to an unexplored cave, since this would be far more exhilarating and there would be a chance to name the cave. All starts well with wide caverns lit a gorgeous red by the flares and the girls sit to take in their bearings. Then it is on to the next cavern which involves travelling through a narrow passage. Sarah, the last girl through, manages to get stuck, and it takes much cagouling and a daft joke to pull her through. It may not seem like much from that sentence, but this is one of the most tension filled moments of the film. Fear of the dark is nothing to the fear of being trapped, and then trapped underground, and then trapped underground in the dark, Marshall taps into a real fear here and plays it to the hilt. Even the cagouling is filmed in tight, the only light from the girls helmet lights, so even in this 2.35:1 aspect the only picture visible is the panic stricken face, the rest is impenetrable darkness and rock. When Sarah eventually starts to move, the passage starts to collapse. The girls escape ok, but soon realise they are trapped, in an uncharted cave system; and what is that in the distance....?
The girls press onwards, their first obstacle, they have to cross a chasm. Marshall, not content with claustrophobia now hits us with vertigo, in another tightly crafted scene. Once on the other side, seemingly daylight causes Holly to run excitedly towards it, unfortunately she falls foul and suffers a Deer Hunter style compound fracture. The scene when the leg has to be set to a splint is another cringe worthy, toe curling moment of pure realism, played to the full by everyone. From here the girls finally realise they are not alone, living in these caves are flesh eating creatures fully adapted to life underground, and it appears the only way out is through their lair. The rest of the film is as exhilarating as the rapid ride and as tragic as the car crash, with plenty of horror in between and to say more would be to say too much, so I will stop.
The camera and lighting work of the film are amazing, a great deal of work was done to make sure the only light underground was the light brought by the cavers. There are obvious cheats, but never gratuitously so, it all remains believable. As for the crawlers, they too are believable, and sufficiently nasty both in looks and personality. They live to eat, and care not where their food comes from, a simple philosophy. The cavers have every right to defend themselves and some do with gusto, especially Juno. It is perhaps Sarah's character that goes through the most traumatic change. Having survived her horrific car crash, she is plagued by dreams of her daughter. When the realisation of the horror overcomes her in the cave, she becomes as feral as the creatures she is fighting, the crawlers are bleached white by lack of sunshine, she is covered in blood head to foot and simply will not give up. The ultimate confrontation between her and Juno and the choices she makes are not from the rational, but from instinct; fear and animal becoming one with the only goal in mind - retribution through survival. And that ending, oh that ending.
Marshall has created a fine film here, a genuinely frightening film that is actually horrifying. A blood and guts film with an actual story, how rare is that, it has restored my faith in the horror film. In tapping into the most primal fears and then twisting the knife to make us squirm there is no let up with The Descent. It is a magnificent film, a true horror and proud to call itself such. Please turn on the light, I'm afraid of the dark, but in doing so I have lost my sanity.
Dare you descend?