The Descent (2005)
A caving expedition turns ugly for a group of friends, who will quickly realize that being trapped inside the earth is not the worst thing that could happen. The Descent is the most profoundly claustrophobic film since The Vanishing (the original, not that wussy Keifer Sutherland remake).
This spelunking adventure comes with a familiar cast of characters: arrogant authority figure, maverick, emotionally scarred question mark, bickering siblings, and a sad-sack tag along. And yet, somehow, the interaction among them feels surprisingly authentic, and not just because each is cast as a woman.
These ladies are not Green Berets who, unlike the audience, are trained for extreme circumstances. These particular thrill seekers are just working stiffs on vacation. It hits a lot closer to home.
More importantly, the cast is rock solid, each bringing a naturalness to her character that makes her absolutely horrifying, merciless, stunningly brutal final moments on this earth that much more meaningful.
Writer/director Neil Marshall must be commended for sidestepping the obvious trap of exploiting the characters for their sexuality – I’m not saying he avoids this entirely, but for a horror director he is fantastically restrained. He also manages to use the characters’ vulnerability without patronizing or stereotyping.
He makes even better use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience.
The film begins with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly follows with some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, then turns dizzyingly panicky before it snaps a bone right in two.
And then we find out there are monsters.
Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.