Neil Marshall burst on to the scene with his impressive low budget werewolf shocker Dog Soldiers in 2002. With a higher budget and more ambitious scope, he followed up his debut with arguably the most effective, and terrifying horror movie of the 00’s.
We follow Sarah and her group of outdoor adventurer friends as they quest for their next adrenaline thrill in the Appalachian mountains. A year ago, Sarah lost her daughter and husband in a car crash and this is her first time out with her adventurer group since the tragedy. We get the sense that she’s not all there. Having nightmares and seeing visions of her daughter everywhere, she’s in a fragile state of mind. So obviously the best way to deal with this is to go spelunking (caving) right? Wrong! Sarah and her group (there’s the smart one, the feisty one, the Irish one etc) venture underground in search of thrills and spills. They get more than they bargained for.
Shadows in the dark
The group, deep under the mountains get trapped by a cave-in and by way of unfortunate plot twist, discover that they’re actually in the wrong cave. An uncharted one. They’re trapped deep underground and lost, with no other option than to keep going deeper in hope of finding a way out. Meanwhile Sarah, already haunted by visions starts seeing shapes moving up the walls. Her concerns are dismissed as paranoia by her sceptical group who are only interested in getting out and, you know, thinking rationally. After all, what possible reason would they have to think there’s something else down there with them?
The first hour or so of The Descent is a masterclass in tension building. The deeper they go the more claustrophobic it gets. Anyone uncomfortable in confined spaces won’t like this movie one bit. Panic sets in as they struggle to find a way out. One of the group (the Irish one obviously) gets injured, adding to their problems. Never mind the monsters.
Oh, right. Did I forget to mention the monsters?
Dreams and nightmares
Out of nowhere, they’re attacked by a horde of Gollum-esq creatures who are understandably pissed off at these daft women who’ve wandered in to their territory. Blind and reliant on their sense of smell and exceptional hearing, the Crawlers as they become known are some sort of prehistoric humanoid species which have evolved to live in total darkness. Vicious and predatory, they proceed to pick off the group one by one, Alien style. Suddenly The Descent isn’t about just getting out anymore, it’s about plain, desperate survival. There follows some very effective scares, none bettered than the night vision scene. You’ll need a change of trousers after that one.
Without spoiling the ending (of which there are several) there are conflicting theories surrounding the film depending on which version you’ve seen. The ending of the UK cut, generally considered truest to Neil Marshall’s vision seems to reinforce the belief that perhaps, what we’re seeing is a result of Sarah’s fragile state of mind having completely collapsed. Trapped under ground and terrified, what if the monsters aren’t real? What if they’re just another manifestation of her hallucinations? And perhaps more horrifying, what if she killed her friends herself? One by one. Or, you know, maybe it was a bunch of scary monsters.
I’ll let you, the reader to decide. In the meantime, enjoy a horror classic that defined the early 2000’s.
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