(2005) Written and directed by Neil Marshall; Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring and Nora-Jane Noone; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“I love the ending. I think the ending poses a lot of questions. Some people are gonna dislike it. What can you do? Some people want things easily resolved, but I like the fact that people walk away with very different ideas about what it means.” – Neil Marshall (from the DVD commentary)
Way back in the ‘80s, during my intrepid high school days, I tried my hand at amateur spelunking. A friend told me about a particular cave located in Simi Valley, California, which was rumored to be a hideout for the Manson family. My curiosity and general lack of common sense compelled me to ignore the warning signs about trespassing on private property, and accompany my friend on an exploration of the isolated rocky chasm. The initial climb down wasn’t so bad until I was forced to squirm down a constrictive tunnel on my back, with a rock wall hanging mere inches above my face. At that moment, my only thought was how unfortunate it would be for me if an earthquake occurred, or if I suddenly became stuck. While getting in was no picnic, climbing out proved to be even more problematic. Since you’re reading this now, however, I’m sure you can ascertain it all worked out, although it’s an experience I don’t care to repeat. With his Freudian nightmare, The Descent, writer/director Neill Marshall tapped into my deepest fears about the subterranean darkness.
Marshall set out to create a movie that recalled his favorite horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the opening credits, he pays homage to John Carpenter, by using the same font used in some of the filmmaker’s most iconic movies, such as The Thing, The Fog and Escape from New York. What follows is a relentless assault on the psyche, as the tension gradually builds. With a combination of clever effects and set design, Marshall and crew create a believable underground environment. CGI is used sparingly, which augments the visuals, instead of calling attention to the effects.
In the opening scene, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her adventurous friends enjoy a whitewater rafting excursion, while her husband and daughter observe idly from the shore. The scene that follows is probably the most visceral and jarring sequence in the movie, as we, the audience are complicit in Sarah’s traumatic event. In the blink of an eye, her life is changed forever. Fast forward a year, and Sarah is still grappling with her grief, and taking antidepressants. She experiences recurring visions, where she relives the tragedy, and dreams about celebrating her deceased daughter’s birthday. Sarah and the audience remain on shaky ground, as we’re never quite sure which visions are real, and which are in her mind.
The friends have assembled again, in North Carolina,* to tackle another outdoor adventure. Led by their gung-ho companion Juno (Natalie Mendoza), they venture into what turns out to be an uncharted cave. The explorers learn too late that Juno’s self-aggrandizing ambitions might have led them to ruin. After a tunnel collapses, they’re left with no choice but to move forward, with the hope that they can find an exit. As tempers flare, and one friend suffers a particularly nasty compound fracture, they begin to question if escape is possible. To make matters worse, as they forge deeper into the cave, they discover they’re not alone. Lurking in the hidden crevices are blind, cave-dwelling bipeds with a taste for human flesh. The creatures navigate the tunnels using echolocation, in the form of unnerving clicking sounds.
* Fun fact: The Scottish countryside stood in for the Appalachian Mountain region depicted in the film.
As with any quality horror film, The Descent is open to multiple interpretations. To borrow a page from Sigmund Freud, it balances manifest (what’s on the surface) and latent (underneath the surface) elements. The darkness of the cave (the film was originally titled The Dark) becomes a milieu for our deepest-seated fears and anxieties. It was suggested to me that the film was a female version of Deliverance (minus the hillbilly rape), with its themes of people against nature, and a clash of societies. It’s easy to draw numerous parallels with the characters and situations (replace outdoorsy Juno with the survivalist Lewis, played by Burt Reynolds). It doesn’t take an expert in psychoanalysis to decode the overt symbolism of the cave, as the bloodied characters squeeze through the cave’s restricted confines, in a perverse mimicry of childbirth. The most compelling (and plausible) theory, however, suggests the film’s events are fabrications of Sarah’s mind, and the proverbial descent is her plunge into madness.
Of course, we can take many of these interpretations with a grain of salt when we consider Neil Marshall wanted to create something that would scare the crap out of us, and succeeded in spades. The Descent remains his most accomplished effort to date, and one of the best pure horror films in the past decade. It holds up, whether one takes a literal stance or looks for something deeper (pardon the obvious pun). Grown up me, if there is such a beast, enjoys entertaining these numerous theories, but six-year-old me just wants to see some monsters. At the end of the day, both go home satisfied.