TBT: The Descent (2006)

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There is no shortage of horrors I could have/might have gone with here. But I decided to ultimately pick something a bit more. . .random out of the hat, as I think more obvious choices like Halloween, or Psycho, or even Friday the 13th would be a little more difficult to say something original about. I turned instead to a film that really, really gave me the heebie-jeebies on the first viewing. As someone who loves rock climbing, it’s pretty ironic that caving (or ‘spelunking,’ if you want to get technical) is terrifying to me. Much like people who are averse to scaling heights outdoors, dropping one’s self into dark, cramped spaces beneath the surface of the earth seems like such a bad idea. I wonder if that in any way might be related to my experience with 

Today’s food for thought: The Descent.

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Descending into chaos since: August 4, 2006

[DVD]

Few horrors have managed to consistently thrill me the way writer/director Neil Marshall’s impossibly claustrophobic tale of a cave-diving trip gone awry has. Time and again, the heady vibrations of the blood-soaked, tenebrous The Descent leave me exhausted come the end, and in a genre where first impressions are critical I find it unusual to exit a film on the tenth go-around in such a manner. It’s like watching it for the very first time again. . .and again.

I feed off of adrenaline, and certain installments offer a mainline shot of it. This chaotic and brutal journey into what might reasonably be described as hell has been like taking one to the carotid. For the uninitiated: a group of young outdoor enthusiasts reunite a year after a tragic car accident involving some of their friends and decide to get a secluded cabin in the backwoods of North Carolina. On their itinerary is an exploration of a massive cave system close by. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and they are left fighting for survival when they find living creatures inside the tunnels. What begins as a routine exploration ends in an epic battle for the surface when they realize the inhabitants don’t take kindly to visitors.

In a refreshing twist, the group’s presented as an all-female cast determined to not be pinned down by the horror tropes of yesterday. (Hooray for climbing/rappeling gear!) Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and the most recent addition to the group, Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), are all given sufficient, if not wholly original introductions. It’s not likely you’ll remember these names after watching but what’s more memorable is the tension between them even before the film dives into the deep end.

The Descent has been most successful in drawing upon the decay of its hopelessly confusing confines. The labyrinthine setting forever remains frighteningly unique — a character unto itself — and Marshall even took the time to stuff it full with plenty of gruesome surprises. (I’m left wondering how many films have been based upon the amazing Carlsbad Caverns?) The Descent has earned a reputation from the speed with which an innocent day trip transitions into a situation darker than the stuff of nightmares. Marshall is less concerned with the minutiae of spelunking in all its spectacular danger in the same way he’s not as bothered with bringing out award-worthy performances from his relatively unknown cast. What comes front-and-center in this wonderfully under-lit production is emotion, energy, a need to survive.

If this all sounds rather familiar, it should. Less familiar is the effectiveness of the atmosphere. You’d never guess this was filmed in the comforts of the Pinewood Studios near London. Or, you know. Maybe you might. You might’ve naturally assumed that filming within an actual cave is simply too dangerous and/or impractical to achieve the desired effect. (Or you could have been perusing Wikipedia, like I just was. . .) Either way, the bloodcurdling screams echoing off these walls have this tendency to trick the mind into thinking we are where we really aren’t. The lack of light, the pools of blood. The pickax and the neck. The crevasses. Interpersonal tensions resulting from last year’s car accident boiling over at the worst times. All of this adds up to a stressful experience that’s difficult to put into the back of one’s mind.

The Descent doesn’t exactly escape unscathed, as its gender-uniform cast at times struggles to reach the gravitas necessary to sell the moment. There are the usual jump-scares lurking around many a dripping stalactite that pass by rather forgettably. There are cringe-worthy lines sprinkled in here and there. Fortunately these issues constitute a small enough percentage of the run time to not overwhelm.

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3-5

Recommendation: There are many aspects to this spelunking expedition that are likely to turn many outdoors-oriented types away. Personally, I find the exhibition of passion for the outdoors often goofily exaggerated in films — not even Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is immune — as if the industry feels it ought to confront those who don’t quite ‘get’ what it’s like to be an adventurous, outdoors type. But to get caught up in frivolous details like that is to overlook the pure adrenaline rush and psychological torment that the film provides. The Descent is taut, exciting, bloody and brutal and if those are the requirements you would list for a good horror, you should avoid this film no more.

Rated: 

Running Time: 99 mins. 

TBTrivia: This film had a working title of ‘Chicks with Picks’ during production. That conjures up an entirely different image now, doesn’t it?

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

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30 thoughts on “TBT: The Descent (2006)

    • It was so underwhelming, wasn’t it?

      I hated it. Hmmm. . .I may have to go digging back into CPD’s archives to see if I came by for that post you made! The Descent is a total blast in my book. So claustrophobic. So effective in inducing my worst fears about caving. Lol!

  1. OK, Tom. So I started watching this movie years ago, and I was seriously SO terrified by the time the weird things showed up in the caves, attacking, that I turned it off. I. Was. So. Scared. It’s one of only two movies I’ve ever turned off in the middle and never finished.

    Sounds like you really enjoyed it! Maybe one day I will have to revisit this movie and watch it in the broad daylight with lots of people nearby to make me feel safe. Haha.

    Great review!

  2. EXCELLENT choice, Tom!!! I freaking love this film. And YES on the better rating for the director’s cut. I hate that the U.S. version felt the need to change stuff. C’mon, ‘Merica!! Lol. Great job!!

    • Thanks so much Cara. Agreed. Agreed, agreed, agreeeeeeed! I feel like the US release ought to not exist. Let’s find all the copies we can find and burn them!!! 😀

      I love the way the director had envisioned it originally. So much more logical, too, as a matter of fact.

  3. Hmmmm, didn’t know there was a director’s cut of this. Neil Marshall is one of the more respected genre directors in this country, alongside Ben Wheatley. This film really kicks ass and the ‘baddies’ are fantastic. Shame the sequel isn’t that great. Crackerjack read mate.

    • Oh, crackerjack. That’s a good word. *Saving that for later use.*

      There is indeed two versions of The Descent man, one you should see and one you quite simply shouldn’t! Lol. I suppose it’s too late to avoid the bad one, which. . .okay, the U.S. release version — the shorter version — isn’t ‘bad’ per se, but wait until you see the director’s cut! It should improve your opinion of the picture as a whole, I’d say.

      And no, I don’t dare go near the sequel. That really is just stupid to me that they made that

  4. Well written review and an excellent choice for throwback Thursday.

    I truly enjoyed watching this film when I saw it. I am not exaggerating when I say I found myself thinking it is easily in the top five best horror films that I had seen during a ten year period. Unfortunately, I have only watched the movie twice all the way through. I am jealous that you’ve gotten to enjoy this modern day horror classic at least ten times, as you mentioned in your blog. I think it will definitely be the first film that goes into my DVD player tomorrow for Halloween viewing.

    You used the perfect word right at the start of your first paragraph ‘thrilling’ because the film certainly was that. Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic tale, fires on all cylinders, and as the ladies were desperately trying to make it out of the cave in one piece, I was cheering them on, having watched so many horror movies during the course of my lifetime, I was hoping that at least one would get out alive in one piece.

    The fact that the entire cast is comprised of all female protagonists, is an important point you bring up in your blog, because while the concept of the final girl is very familiar to horror fans, having an all female ensemble cast, is not something that, I have seen very often.

    I have honestly never been interested in spelunking, but that has more to do with my own fear of getting stuck in a tight enough space that I can’t get out, or being trapped in a cave in, as opposed to any creatures that might be lurking in the dark. I couldn’t agree more with your final assessment; this is a film that every horror fan should watch at least once, because it is certainly worth the well under two hours it takes to view the movie.

    • Cheers Robin, thanks again for your lovely commentary. A great deal of it parallels my thoughts exactly. 🙂

      Obviously, you’ve read my thoughts on spelunking and the like — that stuff is just crazy to me! (Although, again, I do like rock climbing. Haven’t done it in awhile though, which is a shame.) For me, it comes right down to this unique setting and yes, the all-female cast. Both elements are truly novel, and despite the girls’ acting not always striking the perfect levels to fully sell their knowledge of exploring caves — like, I could have guessed right off the bat that something would go wrong and that something was going to come of Juno’s ego clashing with everyone else — however, that’s dismissing the true power of this film which is elevating tension and then raising it to an even higher level when you don’ think it’s possible anymore.

      was reading an interview with the director and he said pretty much the same. He said something to the effect that what he wanted to do was slowly build the dread and the tension, rather than explode to 11 in the opening moments and fail to be able to register that kind of suspense for the rest of the film. His method does work wonders. The tension just gets worse and worse until it’s almost unbearable.

      I’ll definitely be looking back to this film again in the future man. It’s really solid and glad to know so many others think so as well

    • Hah! I C what U did there. It’s alright man, I won’t hold this one too much against you. It’s only like the best horror movie of all time, duh. . . .

  5. Pretty great choice I must say. This is one of my all-time fav chillers… and one of the finest examples of claustrophobic horror! The tension is bone-chilling in this one. You watched the one with the original ending (UK release) or US ending (the inferior version)?

    • It’s awesome, isn’t it man? I have seen both versions, hence the two pie ratings at the bottom. 😀

      Thanks for coming by man

      • It is awesome! I tend to ignore both the US version & the sequel that it spawned. This, as a standalone film, is a masterpiece of horror filmmaking.

        Oh I had to come anyway. You’re an amazing reviewer, after all 😛

        And It’s good to be back after that self-assigned 2 months break I took 😀 …Published some new reviews too.

        • You’re too kind man, I really appreciate the vote of confidence. I sometimes need that, as I feel quite often that I don’t do a lot of these movies justice. Or sometimes when I am writing a negative review that I’m too harsh. I guess we all feel like that at some point huh? 🙂

          I did notice a drop off in my CC notifications. I’m glad you are back and hopefully well-rested! I have thought about taking a break myself lately, but now that the movie quality has significantly been stepped up what with Oscars season in sight, it’ll be harder to keep quiet about these things. Haha. We shall see what happens. Thanks for the comments once again

          • That’s exactly why I took a break… Coz now it’s gonna get pretty interesting with the award season kicking in.

            Thinking of including 1 month break 2 times a year from next year onwards. It is needed!

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  7. Nice, I remember really enjoying this when I saw it. I have a bit of a fear of underground spaces like this – my worst nightmare would be being forced to go caving or potholing. Good point about outdoors people in the movies, I hadn’t really thought of that before but it’s so true. It’s as if you’re either not an outdoorsy type or you treat it like you’re going on some kind of guerilla commando mission…with no-inbetween.

    • Exactly! It’s either ‘Rocky,’ where climbing and outdoor-types look completely ridiculous or everyone is completely averse to those who enjoy the outdoors. This, I say, being true of most mainstream Hollywood productions, of course. there have been a number of lesser-known films to have gotten things more accurately. I just think it’s funny sometimes. I think it’s a stereotype that gets overlooked a ton.

    • I agree completely dude, I may never want to go spelunking myself, but this movie is a ton of bloody, gruesome fun. Love it.

    • Couldn’t have said/sold it better myself Eddie! Thanks buddy.

      I love The Descent as its a really different kind of horror adventure. This will keep me out of caves for good! 🙂

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