The Descent (2005) Movie Review – 31 Days of Halloween
After a tragic accident, six friends reunite for a caving expedition. Their adventure soon goes horribly wrong when a collapse traps them deep underground and they find themselves pursued by bloodthirsty creatures. As their friendships deteriorate, they find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive the creatures and each other.
Welcome to Knockout Horror and to day 28 of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature. Today we are going to be checking out British claustrophobic caving horror movie The Descent from 2005.
This is director Neil Marshall’s follow up to the surprisingly well liked Dog Soldiers and would represent, if we are being honest, the last really decent movie that he would direct. Later efforts like Lair and The Reckoning were poorly received and the less said about Hellboy the better. It’s hard not to ask the question of whether The Descent and Dog Soldiers were overrated or did Marshall simply lose his touch?
This movie was rushed out to try and beat the similar The Cave that released later in the year. A movie that many seem to think copied The Descent but was actually in development a good few months before. Not that it really matters because The Cave huffs money farts and The Descent is actually very watchable. Let’s take a look.
Well Loved British Horror
The Descent follows the story of a group of friends heading into the Appalachian wilds to spend the day caving. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) was recently involved in a car accident that claimed the lives of her partner and child. Hoping to take her mind off of the trauma. Her friend, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), has arranged for her to come along on a weekend of thrill seeking activities. Little do the group realise they are walking into the complete unknown and may not ever make it out.
I thought this movie would be a pretty interesting one to talk about because it gets so much damn praise. The Descent frequently appears in lists of scariest horror movies and is a common mention when people are discussing the best horror movies of the past 20 years. It is currently enjoying an 87% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.4 and even IMDB users like it, awarding the movie an average of 7.2/10. It’s a legitimately well loved and well received horror.
Much of that is down to just how damn scary this film can be. Let’s be real, being stuck in an underground cave system. Forced to push your entire body through passageways barely bigger than your head. Having to leap across chasms with limited safety gear. And completing repeated dives under submerged tunnels on a breath hold, all in the pitch black, isn’t exactly a walk in the park. That, alone, is enough to send a shiver up anyone’s spine. And if you aren’t convinced then I encourage you to read about the case of aspiring cardiologist John Jones and his venture into the Nutty Putty cave. Spoiler alert, he isn’t an aspiring cardiologist anymore.
But that isn’t all; not by a long shot. The Descent captures all of this claustrophobic action beautifully and throws in a little interpersonal tension to boot. Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse. Some of the scariest looking monsters in recent horror history come along and make the whole thing even more terrifying. Combine all of that horrible shimmying through tight passages, limited lighting and having absolutely no awareness of where you are going. With a bunch of monsters that are adapted to these conditions and hungry for human blood. And you have the recipe for some genuinely powerful horror. The Descent is legitimately scary and that is exactly what you want from a horror movie.
Nerve Fraying and Claustrophobic
The Descent works in a way that is incredibly visceral. There aren’t many horror movies like it for just how unsettling it can be. It has jump scares, moments of simple tension and even a bit of gore. But that doesn’t quite put the finger on just how good a lot of the scares are. It builds up its tension very early on and doesn’t relent for the entire movie. It keeps your nerves frayed and your butt hole puckered (sorry, that’s disgusting). The monsters look absolutely fantastic and some of the physical work done with them is immensely impressive. It does a hell of a lot right and is a great watch for those reasons.
The all female cast also makes for a completely different dynamic from what we are used to in horror. Neil Marshall wanted to do the opposite of Dog Soldiers so decided to opt for virtually no male cast members. The result is a horror movie that feels quite different from many of the others around. The group dynamics are different from what you are used to. The interactions are different and the action plays out in a different way. That doesn’t mean there are any shrinking violets here, though. These ladies are bad asses. With Juno, in particular, being able to match up with any horror movie leading man in terms of ass kickery.
Nobody Talks About the Issues
The thing is, as much as I enjoyed the monsters and the claustrophobic scares. I have never really quite understood all of the fuss surrounding The Descent. Sure, it deserves a bunch of praise for some of its special effects work and it has some legitimately nerve shredding moments. But some of the issues with the film are overlooked. I do enjoy it and I absolutely recommend it. But I feel like the movie has a couple of problems that a lot of people seem to simply ignore. Problems that deserve pointing out because painting this as a perfect movie is a bit ridiculous.
The Descent is terribly cliched. It has a whole range of tried and tested horror tropes that it goes to frequently and doesn’t bring much original to the table with regards to the scares. You are going to be seeing a lot of the same stuff you have been seeing in horror for years and years. Characters trying not to move or make noise while something gets right up in their face. Monsters appearing behind characters during lighting flashes. Obvious jump scares and plot reveals that are beyond on the nose. It is all very familiar outside of the location.
I should probably mention that some of the fear element with the monsters is lost with just how damn easy they are to kill. It starts to seem, about half way through, like the real monsters in the film are the women who are infringing on these creature’s territory. It gets pretty brutal for a minute there and I almost felt sorry for them.
That’s not all, however. We also have drama elements that feel shoehorned in and rather unnecessary. Silly plot developments that make no sense and add little to the story. Pointless interpersonal conflicts between the girls and a bunch of characters that all end up being rather unlikable. Throw on top of this the US ending that took away some of the movie’s poignancy and darkness. And you have a film that is rather more flawed than some people choose to point out.
I think The Descent is suffering somewhat with regards to the passage of time, as well. Some of the set building and effects look pretty awful. None of this movie was filmed in caves, for obvious safety reasons. Requiring a set to be built in Pinewood studios. And while the set is tremendous in parts. There are certain scenes that look like the rocks are made of painted polystyrene. It looks pretty hokey and fake and some of the CGI stuff is really naff. The bats, in one part, look like they have been added in using animated cells overlayed on the film.
There’s also a few points where separate scenes have been layered up to make the cave look larger than it is but the perspective is massively off and it looks pretty awful. Perspective is frequently an issue in the movie and I couldn’t help but key in on it. It’s pretty obvious that the same parts of the set were used a few different times from different angles, as well. Which can be a bit jarring as it is fairly apparent. Still, the set design does deserve praise for just how claustrophobic it is. This is one of those movies that is better when there is less lighting as it hides some of the issues.
Acting is Mixed
Acting can be something of a mixed bag, at times. Natalie Mendoza is physically amazing in this film. Her action scenes are brilliant and she makes for a perfect horror movie bad ass. She does struggle here and there when it comes to the drama stuff, though. Much of that is due to her accent wandering off to about five different regions throughout the film. I don’t know what her normal accent is but I wish they let her use it. Shauna Macdonald is really decent and has some good moments but her character’s motivations toward the end seem a little…. extra I guess?
Everyone else bounces between being a bit mediocre and simply a bit boring. None of the characters here are very well developed and their connections to each other seem ambiguous. Marshall wanted to feature actors from all over the world which is cool I guess but it offers a sense of disconnection between the characters. it seems unlikely that they would be friends and even more unlikely that they would all meet up together for such a damn expensive, and dangerous, trip.
Final Thoughts and Score
The Descent is a very good horror movie. It is genuinely scary and the claustrophobic setting is one of the most oppressive in recent horror. The monster designs are fantastic and the movie can be nerve shredding at times. It’s not without its issues, though, and isn’t one of my favourite horror movies. The set can look a bit crappy in parts, the acting is a bit mediocre, it’s beyond cliched and the human drama crap feels insignificant. Still, it’s a great option for some Halloween viewing.