Halloween Horror: The Descent (2005)

The Descent is frightening because it builds on a particular concrete fear: being trapped in a cave. One year after a tragic accident that still haunts her, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is on another outdoor adventure with her girlfriends. This time, the cocky Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has led the team to the Appalachians to go caving. Of course, once they’re down below something goes wrong. And Sarah thinks she sees something down there in the shadows. We can all imagine how terrifying it would be to be lost in a vast network of caverns, or trapped underground because of a cave-in. While the film arouses other fears—such as fear of the dark and the monsters it may conceal—our fears of the unknown are compounded by this particular concrete fear, claustrophobia.

The carefully established claustrophobic setting isn’t the only feature that keeps The Descent from becoming just a lurid film about fit women being killed underground. Writer-director Neil Marshall admirably avoids reducing his female characters to hysterical screamers. The women still scream and panic and run at times, but I think that anyone would in their situation. Their fright is not attributed to their “femininity,” but to the terrifying situation. The film clearly establishes that these women are seasoned spelunkers and capable athletes, and it is a handful of character flaws, errors in judgement, and unlucky events that lead to their troubles, not their female natures. In fact, the film challenges the horror stereotypes of the helpless female victim and even the virtuous, canny female survivor. Later on, when the crawlers attack, the strongest of the group become veritable warriors, slaying many of the crawlers with their climbing axes. Likewise, betrayals surface between the survivors, and no one remains virtuous or unimpeachable.

The claustrophobic parts are better than the monster parts. With the crawlers, the film becomes a bit messy, but I wonder how much of the later events we are meant to read literally. Early on in the film, when the lights in a hospital hallway cut out one after the other, we are encouraged to interpret the event as Sarah’s subjective experience, not what is actually occurring. I would suggest that the depiction of one of Sarah’s dreams and creepy visions of a birthday cake also encourage us to second guess what we are shown.

Either way, though, I was scared right to the end.

Note: I watched the US version that streams on Canadian Netflix. I understand that the UK ending is different and darker.

8 out of 10

The Descent (UK, 2005)

Written and directed by Neil Marshall; starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, and Nora-Jane Noone.