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In Case You Missed It: The Descent (2005)


I love a good horror film, who doesn’t? The problem being that to find the valuable films in the genre you have to wade through a lot of misfires. For every Halloween, The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs there are two to three dozen rip-offs and wannabes. There has been hope in the last two years with instant classics like Get Out and A Quiet Place. And yet, in the last decade and a half the field of horror has been monopolized by the Saw series and its descendants aka “Torture Porn.” So when a film like 2005’s The Descent comes along, you’d better take notice.

From director Neil Marshall (best known for his recent TV work on Westworld and Game of Thrones) comes a tale of six women whose cave diving exploration goes from perilous to outright terrifying when they discover what truly lurks in the dark. As the film starts we meet Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who is suffering from a recent tragedy (a la Dead Calm). She is meeting up with friends Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), and ringleader/adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) for what seems to be a regular get together – this time in Appalachian country. Some are there for reminiscence and some are there for the thrills. And when one of them intentionally loses the underground map, for the challenge of a real exploration, you can sense the foreboding danger.

The first half of the movie actually plays like an adventure film. The danger for these cave divers is real at every turn in the depths. Director Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy heighten the tension and the claustrophobia making use of the dark and the limited light courtesy of flashlights. Then, the cave-dwelling creatures appear and the film shifts into a higher gear. What I find interesting is that the film could have been just as scary and intense without the blood-thirsty predators that they encounter. But, alas.

The second half of the movie is all about survival. These adventurers, who have already demonstrated courage and brawn, do not cower or wither in the face of actual evil. With every piece of climbing gear at their disposal they fight. It is bloody, it is raw, it is thrilling, and it is gut-wrenching – set against a backdrop that evokes Dante’s Inferno.

I know nothing of the 2009 sequel that followed but I doubt it could been as entertaining or resonating. Like all great horror films, The Descent lingers. It establishes an everyday scenario with relatable/believable characters, adds a supernatural twist and effectively stages the human capacity to survive. It’s an exhilarating and unnerving experience. And if it doesn’t dissuade you from cave diving, nothing will.

PS – There will be a free screening of The Descent on Weds September 26th at the Wayne State University Planetarium at 6pm.

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