Over the years I have raved about this movie, so I thought I might finally take the time to do an impressions piece on it. A bit of background, The Descent is a UK movie that came out in 2005. One year after the lead character, Sarah, loses her husband and daughter in a car accident, she meets her friends to go on a caving adventure. Since it’s a horror film, things, of course, go horribly wrong.
There are a few things that this movie misses on. The biggest is CGI. I will give the movie a bit of a pass since it came out over a decade ago, but even with that, there are moments that are pretty awful. There isn’t a lot of use of CGI, so it’s pretty forgivable, but it’s hard to ignore just how bad it is when it does happen. There are also a few moments where it gets a bit… I guess obvious, would be the word. For instance, Juno is continuously in red, we can guess early on that she was having an affair with Sarah’s husband, and it’s confirmed later in the movie. However, the “hints” that this was the case (again like her wearing red) aren’t hints so much as slaps in the face. Another aspect of it being “too much” is that each character is meant to fill a certain role and get boxed in it. This is most notable with Holly and Rebecca.
Despite these problems, overall I feel this is one of the better horror movies to come out in modern times. The use of light in the movie is excellent. The further the women go into the cave the less light, there is (naturally), so there are some creative moments working with that. As they go along, light sources change from flashlights, flares, to lights from a camera, and so on. The choice to do this helps to make the movie more visually exciting and makes the use of color rather dramatic. It means that for a lot of the more horrific scenes there are heavy shadows then spots of bold lighting. It is effective at creating something that is both pleasing to the eye and helps to bring out the fear of what is happening. I cannot overstate how clever the movie is as far as its use of light and different colored lights.
The movie is also very claustrophobic. There are many scenes where the characters are crawling through narrow passages or even standing in smaller openings. The tightness of the situation helps to ramp up the fear level. It’s clear just how trapped the women are, and how few options they have to escape.
I also appreciate how well acted it is, especially with virtually an all-female cast. There is something nice about a horror movie that focuses on women, appeals to women, and isn’t covered in sex or some of the other less desirable things about horror movies and women. The women are unique in their personalities and well developed. They aren’t just perfect characters, with each of them showing less than great things about themselves throughout. It’s also worth noting that while Juno is the “villain” of the movie, not even she is all bad but mostly a person that merely makes terrible choices. As I mentioned, the characters can get a little boxed in. Rebecca is continuously trying to be the best big sister, Beth gets lost in just being Sarah’s support system, but this doesn’t happen so often that it completely takes away from the experience.
It’s also a solid plot. The group (plus Holly) is coming back together to be Sarah’s support system, and then it falls apart. Not only is it a good plot, but it’s also heartbreaking. I feel for Sarah a great deal every time I watch this movie; she has survived something that no person should (as Beth tells her) only to be torn down even further right when she is ready to move forward.
The trickiest part of the movie for me happens when the monsters show up. Early in the film, the women realize they are trapped and begin a difficult struggle getting out of the cave. Not long after the monsters that show up, hunt them, and scatter the women. Now this is the main plot point so to say I am torn on it is a bit odd I realize. On the one hand, I love it. It leads to some well done gory scenes and adds drama to the need for escape. Now it’s not just a matter of surviving the cave, but a matter of moving through quickly and not being killed. It also gives us some of the more suspenseful scenes, most notable for me is Rebecca and Sam trying to hide together. Yet every time I watch the movie I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if there were no monsters. The movie is excellently set up to be a solid human vs. nature horror film. Instead of the monsters killing the women it could be the cave that does so. You wouldn’t have the dramatic chase scenes or the need to run, but it still could have been something worthwhile.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that it could have been good the other way. It only matters what it is. The crawlers are effective monsters, they are well designed, and the use of them in the cave works. As mentioned the women have very little room to work with to run and are at an extreme disadvantage. They have their eyes, but it does them little good when they are so below the surface.
In the end, I will admit I am a bit obsessed with this film and can’t put my finger on exactly why that is. I do have to say that I end up thinking more highly of it than most people do. I will say, in trying to set aside my need to gush over it, that it’s a solid horror film. It’s suspenseful, well acted, dramatic, and aside from the CGI well executed. You might not find yourself being as in love with it as I am, but most horror fans would probably enjoy the experience. Bottom-line, give it a watch.