Greetings, readers! It’s week two of my look at modern horror classics. This time I’ve chosen one of the best horror films to come out in the last 20 years. It’s one of those scary movies that sneaks up on you and builds to one heck of a finale. It’s The Descent. The film has such a simple premise on the surface. But the tension builds up like a tight rope that’s about to snap. And when it does, you’re left with a lot more to think about than you imagined at the beginning.
The Descent follows a group of six women who embark on a spelunking expedition. They’re doing it on the one year anniversary of Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) car accident that killed Sarah’s husband Paul and daughter Jessica. The group of friends: Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) meet at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Right when they all meet, we sense tension among the group, especially between Sarah and Juno. Juno apologizes to Sarah for not being there for her after the accident. But Sarah is distant, clearly not over the trauma.
The day after their reunion at the cabin, the group goes to a cave entrance and descends. But things start to go wrong almost immediately, After moving through a narrow passage, it collapses behind them, leaving them trapped. Soon after, Juno reveals that they are in an uncharted cave system, so any hopes of a rescue are slim. Juno hoped that exploring a new cave would help mend her relationship with Sarah. From that point on the film becomes about the group’s struggle for survival. They find climbing equipment from a previous spelunker as well as a cave drawing, suggesting an exit does exist. While the group looks for the exit, they discover (SPOILER ALERT!) that they are not alone in the cave, The cave us home to some pale, humanoid crawlers. It’s a race against the clock to find the exit before the creatures can pick them off.
Most of what I’ve described sounds like bits and pieces of things you’ve seen in other horror movies. But The Descent sets itself apart by the way it develops the relationships of its characters and revealing their personalities gradually as the tension of the situation grows. Like another horror classic, Halloween, the women in The Descent are spunky and interesting heroines. They’re not just there to be predictable horror movie characters. What’s also worth noting about this movie is that while it does have monsters, it almost doesn’t need them. There’s enough compelling drama in the group dynamic and the struggle to resolve the situation that would make for an effective thriller all by itself. But when the creatures show up, boy are they terrifying! They will haunt your dreams for a couple of nights.
The Descent relies on human interaction for most of its drama without the material ever devolving into overdone melodrama. This is a horror movie that builds in a way that few horror movies do anymore. And while this is a great movie, I feel one disclaimer is needed. If you are claustrophobic…DO NOT WATCH The Descent! Some of the most terrifying moments come from the protagonists navigating tiny spaces in the caves and making narrow escapes. I’m not afraid of tight spaces. But this movie made me feel like I could be. Director Neil Marshall, cinematographer Sam McCurdy (the photography in the cave scenes is downright chilling) and his talented cast deserve the utmost praise for crafting one of the most truly spellbinding thrillers in recent years. Years from now, The Descent will take its place in the pantheon of horror classics.