Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Descent

Bleak, creepy and, once its true horror premise is belatedly revealed after a lengthy and patient build-up, absolutely brutal, The Descent is as good as minimal, no-frills horror gets. A group of friends, all young women, meet up for yearly adventures in order to bond despite being spread out across the world, dealing with individual lives and individual tragedies. Their latest trip together is a descent into an unexplored cave system, spelunking and crawling through the tight tunnels. The structure's strictly traditional: some set-up, in which the women's chatter and banter at their staging cabin introduces their relationships and personalities, and then it's off into the caves, where the claustrophobia quickly becomes unbearable. The darkness, the constriction, is intense, and these women, crawling through the caves, often crawl right up to the camera, the lights on their heads creating blinding flashes within the darkness. The frame becomes a series of holes, small irregular patches of light chopped out of the blackness that otherwise surrounds the explorers everywhere. It's nearly overwhelming in the way it forces the audience to feel what the characters feel, to be trapped and lost along with them.

And that's all before, after all this build-up towards a claustrophobic but rather conventional story of being lost and trapped in the dark, all hell breaks loose and things start to get really ugly. Director Neil Marshall is excellent at showing just enough to suggest the horror happening in the dark, without actually showing more than a brief burst of motion here, a geyser of blood there, a frenzied struggle thrashing around in the dark. The editing is brisk and occasionally confusing in its rapid pacing and dizzying shifts in perspective, but there's no denying that Marshall still locates numerous striking, horrifying images within this darkness and confusion, honing in on the bracing moments of anguish and devastation that are splattered throughout the film. It's a visceral film, all about capturing the in-your-face sensations of being surrounded by darkness, hemmed in on all sides and assaulted by mutated monsters intent on devouring any soft flesh that gets in their way.

Before this, though, there's an introduction in which the trauma that will linger over the rest of the film is introduced. In one brief moment, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) loses both her husband and her daughter and, in a subtle exchange of glances and gestures that she misses but that isn't lost on the audience, Marshall also establishes the unspoken origin of a slow-burning tension that develops between Sarah and her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and will eventually boil over completely at the harrowing climax. The storytelling is simple, even simplistic, but that's all that's required here: Marshall sets up, very quickly and economically, the minimal conflicts that will serve as a subtextual counterpoint to the more physical horror that explodes in the film's second half.

The rest of the women — Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) — are clustered around this central trauma, creating a realistic group of friends with a naturalistic sense of camaraderie. They mock each other in the way real friends do, goofing around, chatting amiably with rapid-fire patter; one recalls the banter of the women in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, albeit without the reflexive cultural namedropping. The film is raw and stripped-down, eventually sending these cheerful, confident women through the grinder. Marshall captures certain powerful images that appear as though glimpsed in passing in the flickering flame of torchlight: a lake of blood from which the heroine emerges glistening and wet, with little nuggets of gristle and bone scattered along her forearms; the little bubbles of blood that spurt out when a blade cuts into flesh; a white, animalistic naked body caught for a second in the glow of a lamp, like an animal frozen in the headlights; the women's frightened faces clustered together in the green haze of a light; a twisted closeup of a mole-like mutant's snarling face, ooze dripping down its rubbery chin.

Once the monsters are introduced, the claustrophobic terror of crawling through tight spaces, being constricted on all sides, is replaced by the bloody, harsh violence of the women's fight against these creatures. They're separated from one another and forced to fend off the monsters' attacks, and as the formula dictates in a movie like this, attrition begins wearing away at the group, quickly dwindling their numbers. It's obvious from the start who the last two standing have to be, the two friends opposed against each other in subtle ways, their friendship strained by the shared trauma of the opening scenes and the subsequent events. The last two women alive become gritty action heroes, wading through blood, armed with blades that they'd once used for climbing and that they now plunge ferociously into the warped bodies of their attackers. Marshall's direction becomes frenzied and over-the-top, depicting the women with their faces and bodies smeared with blood, striking melodramatic action poses as they fight off waves of the monsters. In many ways, it's a jarring disconnect in tone and verisimilitude, a startling left turn from the first half's naturalistic depiction of underground claustrophobia and fear. These are ordinary women, if especially athletic and adventurous ones, and one of them makes a point, early on, of saying that she's not Tomb Raider — which makes the film's late transformation into an action movie adventure not entirely convincing.

Which isn't to say that it isn't peculiarly satisfying regardless. The film's bloody, gory denouement is, despite its out-of-nowhere action movie trappings and jittery editing, a rather exhilarating and horrifying ride. The metaphorical emotional and moral descent that Marshall doubtless intends as a parallel to the physical, literal descent, is never handled as well or developed as fully as the director probably intends, but even that hardly matters. The film's aims and successes are relatively modest, but within its area it excels: it is a movie that shocks the senses and provokes a profound sympathy for its generic characters, who one by one are consumed by this giant hole in the ground and its monstrous denizens.


Jason Bellamy said...

Love it!

Director Neil Marshall is excellent at showing just enough to suggest the horror happening in the dark, without actually showing more than a brief burst of motion here, a geyser of blood there, a frenzied struggle thrashing around in the dark.

That's true. But the other thing I love about the film is that it also can be blatant, especially with it's use of the monsters. Rather than falling into a jump-scare routine, there are several scenes where the monsters enter the frame about as unsurprisingly as possible. And yet they're STILL terrifying. That's what impresses me: this film is about the fear of bumping into something in the dark, but not just that. It's also about seeing the ugliness right in front of you and knowing that you must take it on.

As for the action-heroism toward the end: I don't find it unconvincing so much as unusual; we just don't get tough women on the big screen very often, unless they are the shark-punching Lara Croft extreme (I watched 10 minutes of that movie on TV last weekend; oh my!).

From the start these women are established as athletic, adventuring chicks. And I love that what brings out their toughness isn't some conscious "This is it!" decision. Instead, it's an instinctual reaction to an attack. That is, the creatures jump on them and the girls fight to fend them off, as anyone would, and only then -- after they've been bloodied and killed one of the creatures in an effort to survive -- do they adopt an unflinching kick-ass ego. I find that emotionally convincing, I have to say.

So does this mean you're going to check out the straight-to-DVD sequel? After much hesitation, I put it in my Netflix queue.

Unknown said...

Excellent review on one the better horror films to come out in the last 10 years. Along with DOG SOLDIERS, Marshall showed real promise and it's too bad he blew it on that ESCAPE FROM NY meets THE ROAD WARRIOR rip-off DOOMSDAY but oh well...

THE DESCENT is, as you point out, quite harrowing and plays on primal fears - ones that anyone can identify with - fear of being trapped, closed-in space and fear of the dark. I thought the original U.K. ending was particularly effective and disturbing and much more superior than the U.S. one.

Ed Howard said...

Jason, very good point about the use of the monsters. I got chills in that one scene when the monster finally appears in a clearly visible way, and it's just standing there behind one of the girls, just over her shoulder. So creepy and effective.

I see your point about the turn to action, and on reflection I think my main issue with it — and it's a pretty minor reservation, I should stress — was not that the women fight back, but that the filmmaking in those scenes stressed certain action movie clichés in the postures and framings. It was jarring against the aesthetics of the rest of the film, though again not in a way that ruined the film, by any means. Those scenes are still very harrowing.

I doubt I'll be checking out the sequel, though both Kevin Olson and Stacie Ponder did have some surprisingly nice things to say about it recently. It just seems so unnecessary to have a sequel.

J.D., what's the difference between the US and UK endings? In the version I saw on DVD, she hallucinates that she escapes, then it cuts back to show her isolated and alone in the caves. Let me guess, in the US ending the hallucination is portrayed as a real escape?

Jason Bellamy said...

Good point about the action-hero postures. Though I will always love the moment that Juno rips the ice axe (or whatever it is; can't remember) out of her knee and awaits all-comers.

Jumping in for J.D. ...

Yeah, the American ending provides a "real" escape. No hallucination. Hence the possibility for a sequel. (My little brother told me that the sequel begins just a few days after the events of the first film, which is what I find kind of interesting about it.)

That said, I always thought the triumphant American ending got an unfair reputation to some degree because of how different it is from the original British ending. I mean, everyone else still dies, so it ain't like that woman wouldn't be scarred for life. And, also, the British version still delivers that triumphant crawling-out-of-the-hole moment, even if then it takes it back. So, sure, the British ending is a tease, but it wasn't so bleak as to eliminate that scene completely, as if aware that audiences needed a release.

(J.D. or Ed: It's been a while since I've seen this, so if I misrepresented one of the endings, please correct me.)

Greg said...

I had no idea there was another ending besides the hallucination one.

I found Descent to be one of the most effective horror movies of the decade. I thought it was excellent and that first glimpse of one of the creatures, in the distance, illuminated by the flashlight but not seeing it and not moving until hearing the young woman's breath, was about as effective an introduction to the creatures as I could have hoped for.

I did find the accidental killing followed by the revenge killing near the end a distraction from the rest of the movie and felt it got in the way. Take out that story and just make it a purely visceral descent into a nightmarish world and I'd like it more, but still, I like it quite a bit anyway.

Ed Howard said...

Jason, there was something really stunning about the ending I saw (which has turned out to be the UK version), getting that triumphant crawling-out moment and the frenzied race away from the scene, so cathartic, only to have it pulled away. Yeah, even the escape wouldn't have been a truly "happy ending," but the reversal added an extra layer to the emotional rollercoaster of the film that wouldn't be there if the film simply ended with the escape. At first I thought it had to be a hallucination, then as it went on longer and longer I began to think it had to be real, and right at that point the vision is shattered. In some ways it reminded me of The 25th Hour, where the poignancy of the ending is enhanced by its juxtaposition against a what-if scenario of what might've been.

Greg, I thought the accidental killing was really well-done, and flowed perfectly out of the gruesome action of the monsters. It was a pretty horrifying moment, made more so by the way Juno just gaped silently at her friend afterward, stunned by what she'd done. The rest of the "plot" material, I'd agree, wasn't developed enough to be truly compelling and was thus mostly just a distraction from the horror. All the subtext between Juno and Sarah should've been either developed more deeply or jettisoned altogether for a more focused horror immersion.

Unknown said...

Jason, you are correct about the different endings. I like the UK one more as it evokes those nihilistic films of the 1970s where everything doesn't end alright for our heroes. The US version leaves it open for the inevitable sequel which was awful. Crappy acting and lackluster direction with a flat script. Meh.

Tower Farm said...

I've only heard good things about this movie, but have yet to watch it. As our blog makes clear, we at Tower Farm tend to most enjoy horror movies that are as stupid as possible, and this looks a little too smart and well-done for me! However, it is part of my Netflix queue so that someday I can be surprised by it in my mailbox. Who knows...maybe I'll actually enjoy watching something with a brain...

Ed Howard said...

It might be stretching things to call The Descent "smart" - I don't think anyone's arguing for it as an intellectual horror film or anything. It's all about slow-building tension and then grisly thrills. Hopefully that's not too smart for anyone...

whitney said...

In some ways The Descent reminded me of Alien, and your review reminded me of that. Things start chummy and light, but as the film gets more menacing, the spaces start closing in tighter and tighter, until you're left with that last, compelling image. That claustrophobia alone is terrifying. Cave or spaceship - there's no where to run, just IN CASE something happens. And then it does. A great reveal in a great horror film.

Tower Farm said...

"Slow building tension" = too smart for us. Sorry, Ed, we're just not too bright over on the Farm. We don't do Renoir. We do Harlin.

Ed Howard said...

Good comparison, Whitney. And it's terrifying precisely because everything starts out so innocent, so light and cheery, only to get really intense by the end. The shift in tone makes it more frightening than if it had just been that dark from the beginning.

Tower Farms, that's cool. Plenty of room for all tastes. You'll have to let me know what you think of The Descent when you get to see it, though.

Richard Bellamy said...

Glad you liked The Descent - one of the most gripping films of the past decade.

For this movie, it's well worth watching the "making-of" extra on the DVD. The sculpted caves that they created constitute a very small set - and yet the cave system seemed to go on and on. They didn't build much more than the small areas they lit up so sparingly to create that wonderfully claustrophobic feeling. Also, there's a nice segment on the make-up. It's great that they didn't create CGI monsters. It's much more convincing with real actors and great make-up. The doc is an inspiring look the great effects you can achieve with basic non-CGI techniques.

As for the ending, I was disappointed that it ends differently than the version I saw at the movies when the movie came out (the American version, I presume). If I'm enthusiastic about a movie, I'm pretty faithful to the way I see it originally. Sarah deserves to get away - but, psychologically, she doesn't get away clean. The DVD ending is artistic. She's back in the cave. She see's her daughter. She is surrounded by the noises of the hadal monsters - but is she really back? Perhaps that's the hallucination - a metaphor for all her inner torments over the loss of husband, daughter, and friends. I think the DVD ending can go both ways.

Stephen said...


I once wrote a post about The Exorcist saying its strengths lay in the quieter first half, where unease imbibed the entire fabric of the film, before the horror became fully known and narrowed down to a specific location.

Once we know what we are dealing with and where the escape routes are the film loses tension.

I called it for the Horror before the Horror - everyday fear, uncertainty, nauseating worry.

The Descent for me is the same. It would have been an even better film (it is an excellent film) WITHOUT the monsters. As a claustrophobic tale of entrapment of escape during which the relationships between the girls undergo pressure-cooker strains it is and would have been brilliant.

Anyway, you write very well about it here and really put across its strengths.

The Exorcist piece is here:

Stephen said...

The psychological trauma angle of the ending seems tacked on, like a feigning of intelligence.

An escape, and the implication of a lifetime of trauma above ground, would have worked better.

Greg said...

An escape, and the implication of a lifetime of trauma above ground, would have worked better.

True, but what Hokahey said is worth considering. The ending really can go both ways. No reason to suspect maybe the cave part is the hallucination, not the escape.

Has anyone seen the sequel? Is it any good?

Stephen said...

"No reason to suspect maybe the cave part is the hallucination, not the escape."

Good point, Greg.

It didn't come across that way to me but maybe that's because I'm used to the twists of modern films that are almost always reality intruding on Dream/Fiction.

Ed Howard said...

Hokahey, I agree that the DIY, small-movie feel of this film is part of what makes it work so well. Everything is so physical and feels real; the monsters are so convincing, and the locations feel like real caves. My favorite bit of making-of trivia here is that the actresses were not allowed to see the monster makeup until the scene when the monsters actually appeared for the first time. It seems like that really added to the sense of reality in those scenes, since the actresses really were destabilized by just how ugly and disturbing the monsters looked.

Stephen, it's interesting to try and imagine the film without the monsters. I think you're right that it could work, and the first half shows that very well; it's harrowing and scary enough even before the monsters ever show up. What makes the introduction of the monsters work so beautifully, of course, is that it's presented as yet another escalation of what had already been a pretty claustrophobic and intense situation. The film's narrative accumulates more and more tension, more and more terror, as it goes along.

Richard Bellamy said...

Greg - I saw the sequel. I couldn't resist. I'll go for a cave adventure with monsters again - even if I know it's not going to be worthy of the original. And it was not worthy. In some respects, it was terrible. But I did enjoy parts of it. There were some scary moments and moments that made me jump. And it was fun to go back down there.