I’m not a claustrophobe. My psyche, probably sensing that I was about at terror capacity, decided to spare me that one fear. The skill to making good horror is about the creator taking something that is terrifying to them personally and making that fear accessible to a less neurotic audience; check out Stephen King’s harrowing descriptions of bullies or Romero’s depiction of mindless hordes and their personal fears become universal ones. I don’t know if Neil Marshall is scared of enclosed spaces. All I know is after watching his 2005 horror masterpiece The Descent I’m terrified of them.
I remember not being impressed by the trailers. This isn’t unusual. I hate trailers, although when The Descent came out in 2005, my hatred hadn’t crystallized into the razor-sharp prison shank it is today. I hate the way trailers spoil the movie. I hate the ridiculous gravel-voiced narration. And if I hear “in a world” one more time, I will take a hostage. My point is that this trailer didn’t do much for me. A friend of mine, one that I don’t normally associate with horror, recommended the movie. Actually, Holly told me on no uncertain terms that I needed to see it. I’m in the habit of trusting her, and after this, I’d probably take her at her word if she told me that Drano is a vital part of this complete breakfast.
The Descent follows six spelunkers into a system of caves in the Appalachians. After a freak earthquake, they find themselves trapped thousands of feet below the earth. As they fight off mounting injury and madness, conserving their light and searching a way out, they stumble onto a chamber of bones. And then shit gets real. Morlocks (referred to as Crawlers in the credits, but come on, they’re Morlocks) attack the cavers. Hunted by creatures bred for the dark, the spelunkers must escape a hell-maze that might not have a way out at all.
If you haven’t seen the movie, chances are you didn’t notice what I did in that paragraph. I said, “spelunkers” and “cavers” and in all likelihood, you pictured a group of men with maybe a token lady or two. Well, the film’s first stroke of genius is that all the heroes have double X chromosomes. There’s recently widowed Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), daredevil Juno (Natalie Mendoza), sensible Beth (Alex Reid), punky Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and Nordic sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring). Now, maybe I’m gay, but I really like watching attractive women be cool. I don’t know why. Actually, that’s not true. A woman that can take out a monster with an ice axe, splint a broken leg or navigate through the lightless labyrinth where nightmares are born is the kind of woman you take home to mom. Based on the success of shows like Alias, Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. The reason that you don’t see all-female casts more often is that there’s a persistent belief that audiences will only identify with people that look like they do. Despite the audience for horror being predominantly young white males, there’s a long tradition of female and non-white protagonists that the bedicked Caucasians in the crowd have no problem rooting for. Women seem more vulnerable, thus raising the stakes, and the clever director can play with that, even as the heroines emerge more bad ass than any man. After all, you don’t need a dick to tear a monster’s throat open.
The Descent is really two movies in one. The opening of the film uses a few conventional shock scares to soften the audience up, like a good boxer landing an opening salvo of jabs before the brain-scrambling hooks. Once the heroines go into the darkness, it becomes about the twin horrors of claustrophobia and scotophobia. The shock scares vanish, and it’s a story of creeping dread. The edges of the film are pitch black, with the only light coming from the jaundiced glare of flashlights or the hellish blaze of flares. Several sequences have characters wriggling through passages barely larger than their shoulders. By the time the shocks return, ushered in by the albino Crawlers, Marshall has turned the audience into a mewling mass of phobia. It’s important to note that before the Crawlers attack, they’re shown three other times, in the background of one shot, as a misshapen shadow on the wall, and in the extreme foreground. This, combined with Sarah’s possibly insane insistence that there’s something down there, helps make the monsters an organic part of the film as a whole. Some reviewers seemed to dislike the introduction of the Crawlers, saying that The Descent was already a good horror movie without turning it into a creature feature. They’re correct, it was already a great movie, but adding another layer of terror keeps the film fresh. As any good special effects person will say: keep changing the trick. When the goal is fear, the same holds true. That which becomes familiar is no longer scary.
Another survival horror film covered in darkness might have skimped on character. Throw six interchangeable characters into a cave, add monsters and shake well. Marshall has a very specific idea for each character, and though some are more well thought out than others, none of them are ciphers. To assist in our bonding with them, he gives us first a prologue in Scotland to introduce Sarah, Juno and Beth, as well as the tragedy that shapes Sarah, then another scene in a cabin in which we meet the other three women. But half the movie is abyssal darkness how do we tell the women apart? Simple. Marshall brilliantly gave each of his heroines a different accent. Sarah’s a Scot, Juno is American, Beth’s British, Holly’s Irish and the Teutonic sisters are… well, they’re some kind of Scandinavian (Mulder’s Dutch and Buring’s Swedish), but there’s a large height difference to help that distinction. An American audience might not be able to identify an Irish versus a Scottish accent, but the difference helps the ear distinguish between speakers.
No matter how appealing the cast, the audience needs a way in, and once again Marshall does something innovative. He establishes Sarah as the main character: it’s her loss that gives the film some dramatic heft. She also has the largest arc, going from withdrawn and wounded to savage Amazon hell-bent on survival (this arc is a staple in non-zombie survival horror and shows up in a couple zombie flicks as well). Juno is the closest thing the film has to an action heroine, but she is also responsible for the situation and has a dark secret. It’s left to Beth, the good friend, to serve as the audience surrogate. She is the most accessibly sympathetic character, the only one of them who stuck around to help Sarah through the death of her husband. Marshall is adept at pulling the rug out from under us there too, giving us a way in only to take it away in a single stunning twist.
The women are also color-coded to a degree. Each one uses a different light source in the latter parts of the movie. Sarah’s light source is, appropriately for her position as the powerful barbarian, is a torch. Juno uses a red flare, as violent as Sarah’s light source, but still a product of civilization. The red glow casts her in blood, appropriate for the secrets she carries into the third act. The Nordic sisters have a glowstick, giving them the softest of lights, in every sense.
The Descent is preoccupied with the futility of rebirth after tragedy. This starts with Sarah’s attempts at recovering from the deaths of her husband and daughter, and continues with the vivid imagery of the cave. The first descent into the cave is through a long, wet shaft that looks very much like a throat. It closes behind them, meaning that the only way out is to go deeper. The big trouble begins when they reach the bone chamber – the cave’s stomach. Sarah ends up covered in blood, symbolically killing a nuclear family of Crawlers, and attempting to push her way up and back into the world. Without spoiling the film too much, the past sabotages every one of her efforts. The Descent seems to suggest the opposite of Fight Club: resurrection doesn’t proceed from disaster.
Dark, true, but The Descent is nothing if not dark, in every sense of the word. It is also one of the best horror films of the decade.