The Descent is a 2005 horror film directed and written by Neil Marshall. It casts a group of women who are tasked with venturing into a cave. After venturing down into the darkness, things go bad and they must escape from it before being lost forever. The two main leads are played by Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza, playing the characters of Sarah and Juno respectfully. Do the names of the leads matter? In The Descent, they actually do. The characters actually do develop, and have relationships with each other, something that is seemingly rare in a horror film.
The film opens with three of the cast members wrapping up a whitewater rafting trip. On the way home, Sarah ends up in a car crash, killing both her husband and daughter, while sending her to the hospital. A year later and seemingly fully recovered, the group decides to meet up and go for a little caving adventure. While they were supposed to be exploring a cave that had already been previously explored, Juno ends up leading them to an unexplored cave, in hopes to restore their previous relationship. While there, things go wrong, and the group is suddenly left to fight for their lives, all while being over two miles beneath the surface of the Earth.
Now, this being a horror movie, you can be sure that jump sequences are bound to be present, and The Descent certainly has its fair share of those. This is something that I don’t really like in a movie, as I find jump scenes to be more startling than scary. They never leave you with a lasting impression, and end up being quickly forgotten. The Descent really doesn’t have any long-lasting thrills or scares, making it a fairly forgettable film both while you watch it, and afterward.
The main reason for this is that it actually gets less frightening once the group encounters whatever is in the caves. Before you see what is down there, yes, the film is fairly scary. Still relying a bit much on jump scenes, but it seemed like something plausible. That realistic feeling, combined with dark environments where you can hardly see what is going on does give a true sense of fear. The creatures actually make quite poor hunters, having lost their sight and having a poor sense of smell. They seem to rely primarily on their hearing, and that doesn’t do enough to compensate for their other sense being crippled. Once you see what is slowly hunting the group, you realize that the actual dangers in the film are the cave itself, as well as the group’s inner turmoil.
Does The Descent work as a horror film? Not after about half way. Does it continue to be entertaining? It does.
The Descent continues to play around with what side each member of the group is on. The primary example of this is the character of Juno. Despite the fact that she isn’t the character the film focuses on, she ends up being the most interesting, always toying around with what side she truly is on. This isn’t to say that other characters don’t get interesting parts to play as well, it is just that Juno ends up being the best developed, and likely the best acted.
The acting as a whole is fairly well done. You can tell that the characters are strong-willed, a nice change from the majority of horror films featuring women, and you can see the fear that they are feeling in the film. The dialogue is straightforward, thankfully sidestepping the usual cheesy one-liners, and instead focuses primarily on the dialogue between characters. The group isn’t as strong as it once was, and this is shown to the audience through the often tense way that the characters talk to each other. They communicate like there really has been some drama within the group, and their lines more often than not continue to reflect that even when they are a couple of miles beneath the Earth, struggling for survival.
Does The Descent work as a horror film? Not after about half way. Does it continue to be entertaining? It does. The dialogue stays fresh and the action scenes are still quite a lot of fun to watch. With this being a Neil Marshall film, the gore has been ramped up, allowing for some completely over the top scenes. The characters are relatable and well-developed, the film never dawdles, and some scenes, especially ones near the beginning, are genuinely terrifying.
Despite this, most of the film thrives on cheap, forgettable jump scenes, which do not actually scare. They startle, about as much as a cat leaping onto your face. You won’t stay mad at the cat, and you’ll likely forget about what it did in a few minutes. That’s basically how I feel about The Descent. It was entertaining enough while watching it, but afterward, and even at parts throughout, it’s difficult to remember what you went through, and why you should care.
Conclusion: A deeper-than-usual horror film that still sadly relies heavily on jump startles, The Descent is a decent ride.
Recommendation: The Descent is better than your average horror movie—not that that says much—and if you want one with better characters than usual, it’s one to check out.