Ben's Super Spooky Halloween Movie Extravaganza: Part 2 The Descent
Welcome back to the extravaganza! This week we will be leaving the horrors of the thirst for scientific discovery of The Fly behind and and dipping our toes into the wonderful world of feminine metaphors and claustrophobia. Thats right, The Descent was my second pick for horror movie month and I made it for a few reasons. Firstly I have only seen it one time, and the conditions were not the best. I really wanted to get this one up on the projector and see how the larger screen would treat the movie.
Even though my first viewing was basically 4 people surrounding my lap top I still loved the hell out of this movie. It brought so many of my favorite things about horror movies and did them well. I will go over some of those specifics throughout this entry but I will say that not everything translated as well as I thought in this second viewing. So strap in, turn on your spelunking head lamp thingie and whatever you do, don't forget the rope bag! As with the first episode of the extravaganza this will be a little more in depth than a normal review so expect spoilers aplenty.
The Descent begins with a group of female friends having a nice little float down some rapids. Onlooking are our protagonist Sarah's family, a husband and daughter who very shortly will have the shit killed out of them in a car accident.. We get to see that these women are "thrill seekers" as you would say and seem to bond under the toughest of circumstances. After the aforementioned car crash and a year passing the friends regroup in a cabin in North Carolina with a few new friends in tow to seek their toughest challenge yet, both physically and mentally.
Supremely important in any horror story is the setting. The Overlook of The Shining, the Nostromo in Alien and the woods in The Blair Witch project are perfect examples and the winding treacherous caves of The Descent continue the trend. I struggle to think of a better location for some scares, in fact the inherent darkness and claustrophobic nature of the cave system means terror could be lurking at every turn weather it be a seemingly impassible gap or a bat creature. Throw in some water/blood and you add the fear of drowning stuck between the rocks and you get a horror directors dream.
Another crucial element of a movie like this are the characters. It is not often that we get basically a full female cast but as I discussed with my two compatriots who watched the movie with me, women are easier to sympathize with. Normally there would be a few frat bros and borderline sexual predators along for the journey that the audience gets to hate and feel a happy when they are entertainingly ripped apart. While some of these women will show their true colors in the dark, we as viewers enter that cave with an inherent sympathy for each of these women.
To go along with the all female cast director Neil Marshall decided to go with mostly unknown actors and actresses. Whats more is that most of these women are foreigners. With the movie taking place in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, there is a feeling that these characters are outsiders here and the thought that these women really have no one outside the cave looking for them removes any sense of comfort. Back to the unknown actors, not only does it allow the writers/director to handle any character any way they want without having to worry about killing off a star, it helps build the reality of their situation. It is difficult to truly get immersed into the movie when we are constantly reminded that we are only watching a movie because we keep seeing Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway fighting monsters.
While an unknown full female cast provides all that good stuff it also has it's downsides. I had trouble telling all the different characters apart once things really started to get dark and messy. While they tried to do enough to differentiate them from each other I had more than a few moments of confusion even on a second viewing. This makes it difficult to really be effected by any of the various things that happen to these women in the caves but overall I think the positives outweigh the negatives.
I have discussed setting, characters and the tone of The Descent but there is one more supremely important element, the monsters. Blind from generations of living underground and as white as a country club from the complete absence of sunlight these monsters provide a bit of a catalyst for The Descent in its third act. They are not the most frightening or original monsters that I have ever seen but they are a fantastic backdrop for the greater allegory at play here.
Like 2014's Australian psychological horror masterpiece The Babadook, the events of The Descent play out to show the greatest horror of all, Sarah's depression and her empty womb so to speak. Ever since the car accident Sarah has been distant from her friends both because of her unwillingness to movie on from the death of her family but also her friends lack of support. As the movie moves farther along Sarah goes deeper into both the cave system and the darkest parts of her mind. As the group is walking into the cave in the first act someone says that prolonged exposure to the cave can make delirium, hallucinations and insanity set in. There is an argument to be made that the group never actually went into that cave.
The events take place in Sarah's mind with all of the tunnels and monsters representing her different stages of grief. At first she feels stuck, unable to move forward through the cave system out of fear, of what? I think that is for each viewer to decide on their own. Then when the baddies come along Sarah is frantically chased through the caves by an enemy she cannot see or hear until it is too late. It is only until Sarah rises from that pool of blood that she feels "reborn" and takes the fight to the monsters only to have to dispatch her greatest monster of all, her best friend who not only was not supportive after the accident but was also sleeping with Sarah's husband before the incident. Ultimately Sarah does get out of the cave on her own, only to find that she never really left the caves at all and probably never will.
It is not a happy ending by any stretch but the reality of it hits so hard that it would be a real shame if they had decided to change it to appease audiences. The ending of The Descent fits so perfectly into what the movie really is. On base level it is a creepy moody horror flick with some solid tension and monsters but looking a little deeper brings so much more. Director Neil Marshall may forever be best known for directing two of the best episodes of Game of Thrones ever (Blackwater and Watchers on the Wall) but to me The Descent is his finest work so far in his career. Good horror movies scare you, great ones scare you for weeks and The Descent has the power to keep you thinking about it long after the lights have gone up.