Long-time readers may remember that I have complicated feelings towards the horror genre. And by complicated feelings, I think that most of the output of the genre is unequivocal garbage. More than any other genre (except for like pornography), cheap, easily disposable horror is the mainstay of the genre and people think they can substitute cheap gore effects and tired cliches for strong writing and a genuine sense of terror. But, when good horror films come along (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, or Paranormal Activity), they are incredibly powerful experiences. And, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade is the British creature feature, The Descent. Though I found the sequel to be incredibly disappointing (mostly for abandoning the atmosphere and tension that made the original so brilliant), there have been few horror films of the modern era as terrifying as 2005’s The Descent.
So much horror today (and ever since the 80s resurgence of the genre) is predicated on massive amounts of blood and gore. This may seem like a weird thing to complain about (considering that The Descent is quite gory), but without characterization and atmosphere, modern audiences have become completely desensitized to gore. Most horror films (think the torture porn subniche films like Hostel or Saw) exist not to scare audiences but to satisfy their bloodlust. They go into the films hoping to see new and inventive ways for people to be killed and dismembered. And that’s not scary. It’s just gross. Horror films have always been most effective when the director and writer are able to create an empathetic relationship between the films’ doomed heroes and the audience. And that dedication to establishing sympathetic heroines is one of many reasons that The Descent is a modern horror masterpiece.
One year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident, British adventure junkie Sarah (Shauan MacDonald) travels to America to go caving with her five best friends, including the adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) that may or may not have been sleeping with her late husband. But the girls’ trip into a North Carolina cave system turns out to be a bigger adventure than they bargained for when Juno leads them into an unexplored cave system to up the group’s thrills. And if traveling through a cave prone to cave-ins and with no idea where the exits are wasn’t a big enough problem, it becomes readily apparent that these six action girls aren’t alone in the cave as they are slowly picked off one by one by a race of subterranean humanoids with a taste for human flesh.
What makes this film work where the sequel (or any other writer/director trying to handle similar thematic material) fails is how much this movie makes you wait for the bloody payoff. In fact, I almost think the arrival of the “Crawlers” is less scary than the cave exploration before hand. You don’t get your first real sight of the creatures until more than forty minutes into the film. Before the caves are even reached, a good fifteen to twenty minutes is spent establishing the relationships and tensions of this group of friends so that you actually care about everyone and you know who everyone is besides Red Shirts A, B, and C. And that sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that the film establishes as the girls make their way through the cave before the creatures show up is simply suffocating in the best sense of the word.
And, The Descent is a film built entirely on the perfect call-and-response of tension and release. You would think that a film as reliant on jump scares (and fake jump scares at the beginning) would not fare well upon repeat viewings. That is… not the case. In fact, because of the excellent costume and make-up work of the “Crawlers,” the tension of waiting for them to make their inevitable, terrifying appearance becomes even more unbearable on later viewings. Particularly, the now classic scene when they first make their appearance known to the group while Sarah uses a video recorder’s night-vision mode. And when the violence arrives, it is so brutal and against characters that we actually give a shit about, that it carries more visceral impact than a year’s worth of horror movie deaths combined.
Also, The Descent is a massive fuck-you to the misogynistic and male-dominated world of horror. Women tend to be the primary cannon fodder of most horror films (and yes, most of the main characters of The Descent die), but in The Descent, the bad-ass female heroines avoid every negative female horror stereotype that they can. And when they make mistakes that lead to their deaths, they are generally believable and realistic human error. For example, Juno’s decision to explore an un-marked cave system totally fits with her character’s adrenaline-fueled need to prove herself and a different character, the possibly lesbian Holly, had complained about the “tourist” cave they were supposed to be exploring. One of my biggest complaints about horror films is that characters don’t act in rational ways, and The Descent totally avoids that trap.
I’ll draw this review to a close mostly because I need to start getting ready for class (I woke up at 4 AM this morning; I have a meeting with my adviser at 8:30 AM; and I work tonight until 1 AM. Oy vey), but if you couldn’t tell, I could rave about how much I love this movie for another 500 words or so. I’ve seen it a little over half a dozen times now, and each time I notice a new bit of foreshadowing or I think I notice a creature in the edges of some shot before they’re supposed to actually show up. That’s the sign of a great film. Great movies offer you something new each time you see them, and The Descent clears that bar. I rarely find a film to be legitimately scary. Even the horror movies that I tend to love don’t scare me very often (I more often appreciate their technique and atmosphere), but The Descent is an honest-to-god scary movie, and those are so rare that you can’t pass them up when you find one.
Final Score: A