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?

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com