Louise Blain – presenter of Sound of Gaming on BBC Radio 3 – looks back on the claustrophobic horror classic that still… rocks.
Neil Marshall’s The Descent doesn’t teeter on the top of my mental pile of the best horror movies. It doesn’t wobble, occasionally displaced by a newer 21st century upstart. No, like an old piece of climbing gear long screwed into a rocky overhang deep beneath the ground, it remains resolutely fixed.
If nothing else, it’s always reassuring to have a movie to go to when someone hears I like horror films and immediately demands the scariest one. Unlike other situations where someone asks for a book or movie recommendation and you forget every single piece of media you’ve ever consumed.
But let’s leave the light behind and journey into the darkness where water trickles and something scuttles unseen. Put simply, The Descent is perfect. It has everything. Tragedy, growth, magnificent women, friendship, claustrophobia, and – just when you think it can’t get any worse (or better) – horrific blind monsters revealed in a night vision jump scare so effective that every horror over the last two decades has tried to better it, and failed. Well, except you, Mike Flanagan and James Wan.
The Descent is a film that’s lost none of its power over the last 16 years. In fact now, as life serves up the realities of friendship and the many little tragedies of aging, Shauna Macdonald’s searingly traumatised Sarah sneaks under the skin more than ever. The idea of the world being a seemingly randomised series of devastating accidents, depicted so effortlessly by the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter in the opening sequence, is an uncomfortable truth. It’s almost a relief to join the women as they embark on their journey underground. This is horror territory that we understand.
Or do we? I’m trying to remember if I knew when I first saw the movie what was waiting in the darkness of those uncharted caves. I’m not sure I did in 2005, but – regardless – this is a one-two punch of terror.
From the moment the women rappel into the gloom, The Descent becomes true claustrophobic horror. Purposefully turning their back on the safety of light to journey into the depths, the motley crew may be doing this for fun but we know differently. We’ve seen the poster, after all. Long before the monsters arrive, the tight passageways and crumbling rocks are a solid, oppressive force. The sequence where Sarah gets stuck in a long passageway is a masterclass of breath-holding desperation.
Despite the all out action of its latter half, The Descent is laced with perfect little moments of dread. Juno’s reveal that this isn’t the safety of a known underground network, the evidence of the tools of a prior climbing group, or even the perfect seeding of a watch that won’t do what it’s told. Nothing in the 99 minute run-time is wasted. Everything is engineered for perfect dread and utter tension.
Yet it’s not the fact they’re in an unknown cave system or the monsters that make The Descent so unrelentingly compelling: it’s the characters. The imperfect relationships of a group of women trying to rekindle their past, reckoning with their mortality a lot faster than they should. They are all of us, even if we might have chosen Center Parcs and a nice chianti instead of the Appalachian mountains.
The grief of Sarah’s situation, the reality of friends not knowing what to do and the reveal of Juno’s relationship with Sarah’s husband are the driving forces at work here. The rise of Sarah and Juno as monstrous, blood spattered opposing forces by the end is a glorious metaphor for their struggle. The monsters almost become secondary to the battle of these wills, but never lose their potency.
The Descent then remains a perfect balance of humanity and horror, blending the two in a claustrophobic cocktail. So my advice to you in our spookiest of months is to turn off the lights, turn up the audio, watch it again and, oh, whatever you do, avoid the sequel. Happy Halloween.