Females in Horror Month: The Descent (2005)
Continuing February’s theme of Females in Horror I revisited The Descent. Goddamn this is an amazing flick. Tell me what you think of it; I wanna know!!
If I didn’t include this movie in my “Females in Horror Month” theme, my wife would have kicked me in the balls … and rightly so. No modern film better re-defines the role of the female in the horror genre than Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Marshall exploded on the scene with 2002’s Dog Soldiers, about a squad of British soldiers training in the Scottish Highlands who have to do battle with a pack of werewolves. By all accounts Soldiers should have been a run-of-the-mill, formulaic, studio quickie. But due to Marshall’s energy and storytelling prowess, Soldiers had an original feel to it that was marked with great gore, plenty of action, and great performances. He didn’t try to re-define the werewolf genre; he just took the best elements of it and distilled it down to a gory, fun, scary 105 minutes. Soon after I put Marshall’s name in the back of my head as “someone to look out for.”
Three years later Marshall comes back with The Descent. The basic set up
here is a group of friends exploring a cave get trapped inside and proceed to get attacked by creatures. Really? My hopes of having found a new, fresh voice in the genre came crashing down. Was Marshall really making a “creatures-in-a-cave” flick? Oh boy. I expressed my disappointment to a buddy of mine who told me that no matter what I do, I’m not to miss this one. If I didn’t see it he would never speak to me again. Ok then; that’s a pretty strong reaction to this flick. Well once again he didn’t lead me wrong; The Descent blew me the fuck away (in fact, it made the #3 spot on my Best of the Decade list. Check out the complete list here).
So what made this movie so goddamn great? Why does it feel like an original idea even though it’s been done to death 1000’s of times over (that very same year, in fact, we got The Cave which is the same set up but executed terribly)? Two main things elevate this flick to the “ass-kicking” level: The first is Neil Marshall himself, and the other is the all-female cast. This movie wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if it was the typical all-male cast.
As to the first point: Marshall himself. Marshall takes this clichéd setup and
makes it feel original by giving us fantastic characters, great dialogue, great creatures, great f/x, and great action. Lets be honest; there’s nothing new going on in this movie that hasn’t been done. The difference is Marshall’s execution. He cares about the material and his love of the genre is obvious in every scene. His treatment of the bat-like creatures is also brilliant. At first all we see are faint shadows of these creatures as they are observing and following the girls deeper into the cave. There are even times when you question whether the girls aren’t imagining them altogether. And I’m not gonna tell you when we finally see the creatures up close and personal; believe me you’ll know it when it happens!! But I will tell you it was a truly terrifying moment that’s one of the best scary moments from the last decade. What made that scene so effective was that the actresses weren’t acting terrified, they were terrified. Marshall gave the actresses an edited version of the script where there was no mention of the creatures. They thought they were filming a survival flick. So the scene where the girl’s encounter the creatures for the first time actually captures their genuine terror at seeing these creatures for the first time. A few of the actresses actually ran off the set screaming! Brilliant move Marshall; not only did that give the scene a sense of authenticity, but you really felt the girls’ terror.
This brings us to the other element of what made this movie so successful: The all-female cast. The entire core cast is made up of six young women. There’s in fact only one male character in this entire flick and he doesn’t even make it outta the prologue (oh that opening scene; it’ll grab you by the balls and squeeze hard. It’s brutal and takes no prisoners. You’ll be numb as you ask yourself, “Did I actually just see that?”). “But,” you ask, “We’ve seen movies with strong characters before. What makes this one so amazing?” Well unlike, say, Charlie’s Angels … ok ok; I’m totally fucking with you. There’s absolutely NO comparison between the females in Descent and Angels (the girls in The Descent are way hotter too)!!
What makes this group of girls such a breath of fresh air is that they are
strong, tough, fiercely independent, and bad-asses. Not just one or two of them; ALL of them. They don’t “cave in” (ahem) once the shit hits the fan and sit around waiting to be rescued by a group of men. Not here. They are fucking survivors who fight for their lives. Hell, even the “weakest” of the group would kick the shit out of most guys. The girls here are all long time friends who meet every summer to go on an adventure. This time they meet to explore a cave in North Carolina. The most experienced in the group with caving chooses a cave system she came across that isn’t on any map. “[This cave system] hasn’t got a name. It’s a new system. I wanted us all to discover it! No one’s ever been down here before.” You just know this spells trouble!! The dialogue among the woman is also some of the most realistic and authentic conversation ever put on film. There’s no cattiness or bitchiness among the girls. There’s a healthy sense of competition among them all and there’s only one strained relationship among two of the girls (which ends up being integral to the plot). But even their dialogue has a sense of realism to it.
If you’re claustrophobic you may wanna avoid this flick. I’ve never experienced a more claustrophobic feeling in a movie ever!! The sets that were built and Marshall’s camera work will make you feel as though you are trapped and buried alive in the cave with the girls. Just wait until the cave-in scene; I found myself gasping for breath as I watched the girls narrowly escape death. This cave-in cuts off their exit so they have no choice but to go deeper into the cave to try and find a way out. Then eventually they encounter the bat-like creatures. Oh those goddamn creatures; truly the stuff of nightmares. They were designed to look as if they evolved and adapted to their environment over hundreds of thousands of years. Pretty friggin’ realistic looking if ya ask me. They are fucking frightening looking things, and in another brilliant move Marshall insisted that the people playing the creatures were trained actors and not stuntmen. This way the actors could give the creatures a history and a personality. Again; smart move which paid off in spades!!
Marshall took a tired and clichéd sub-genre here and created what felt like a
truly original flick. He re-defines the “creatures-in-a-cave” movie by simply giving us good actresses, true dialogue, realistic situations, and terrifying creatures. It seems pretty basic and elementary, doesn’t it? Even the subplots wrap around and contribute to the intensity of the climax of this film. They don’t get much better than this one folks. If you haven’t seen this yet drop what you’re doing and go watch it. It may seem I’ve dropped some spoilers here but I’ve seen this one a dozen times and still jump at the scary scenes full-well knowing they’re coming. Definitely check this one out and make sure you see the original director’s ending on the DVD, not the North American ending!!
Director: Neil Marshall
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 6.5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains (perhaps the only movie ever made that doesn’t need zombies in it)
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer