I’ll be damned if The Descent isn’t the finest horror movie of the 2000s. Its premise is ingenious: six female friends, prone to adventuring, travel to rural Appalachia for a few hours worth of renowned spelunking. Bonds will be strengthened and friendships renewed; for some, the trip might even be healing, especially for Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), who is recovering from a traumatic familial tragedy that only occurred a year earlier.
But if you’ve paid any attention to critic “best-of” lists in the last decade or so, who have put The Descent on the same pedestal on which they previously placed The Blair Witch Project and Suspiria, you’ll expect that the planned few hours worth of renowned spelunking don’t go quite so well. And no, bonds are not strengthened, and friendships aren’t renewed either. Things take a turn for the worse when we, along with the unlucky cast of females of the film, discover that the vast cave they’re dwelling is not an innocent rock compilation; it is, in actuality, a home to horrors so ghastly that I won’t bother to explain them in great detail. Blood is spilled though, no?
The Descent is the all-too-rare kind of horror movie that really and truly shakes you up. Nightmarish and far more apt than it has any right to be, it doesn’t try to reinvent treaded-upon horror territory so much as it does succeed in playing us like a piano. It taps into one’s inherent fears of claustrophobia and the dark, and doesn’t let up for most of its length. It is an inescapable labyrinth of the macabre, and maybe I’d be more opposed to its bloodcurdling tendencies if more horror movies were as effective as this one just so happens to be.
But few compare, both in willingness to invent and in willingness to be hard-driving and see its ambitions through. It is written and directed by Neil Marshall with a wondrous harnessing of the “worst case scenario” possibility, and it moves along with guileless escapism that reminds one of summer popcorn adventures of the past. It isn’t trying to win over a specific demographic, horror snobs being the first to come to mind considering its British, independent origins. It wants to scare, like Psycho did and like Jaws did.
I shouldn’t compare it to those aforementioned classics because it doesn’t much artistically compare. But similar is the key theme of survival and what savage actions people might take to maintain it. Most of these women, save for a few who are friends of friends, are close, and their relationships are tested in ways no one should ever have to experience. Is it worth it to leave someone behind, to betray a so-called friend, to put oneself over another? Combined with the elements of entrapment and unrelenting danger, not to mention the recurring motif of the color red (the light set off by the characters’ few firecrackers really does make the cave look like its own special kind of hell), we find ourselves hard pressed to think of a scenario scarier than the one The Descent presents us with. Even dining with the cannibalistic, inbred family of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seems more pleasant — at least escape is slightly more of a possibility.
With decisive performances and inspired directing, The Descent is a modern horror classic. There is a sequel, unseen by me as I’m not so sure I want to delve into the same, bloody cave ever again. But I’m already finding myself wanting to suggest avoidance. Why have your questions answered when you can keep your head swimming in its abhorrent ambiguity? A