THE DESCENT

3.5 Stars
Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
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“I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.” – Apocalypse Now

My sentiments exactly; I don’t care where I die, as long as it’s not trapped underground where there’s no light. Stuck in tight space where I can’t move. Put a gun to my head and I’ll smile as you pull the trigger. Make me stand on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower on September 11th and I’ll give the finger to Mohammed Atta as the plane slams into me going 500mph. I’m not afraid to die as long as it doesn’t involve hours and hours of me gasping for breath, buried alive under a mile of rock.

For me, a cavern is the most terrible place in the world. Of all the regions on Earth that I can think of, no other can elicit so many phobias all at once. There’s literally something for everyone. Fear of smothering in confined spaces, fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of slithering slimy eyeless slugs crawling over your body, fear of drowning… You get the idea. To explore such a place is nothing more than mountain climbing inside a tomb.

One year after a devastating family tragedy, Sarah’s friends take her out caving in the Appalachian Mountains to help get her back into the swing of things. She used to be heavy into extreme sports so apparently a prolonged visit into a pre-historic catacomb is just the ticket. I can’t really understand this logic, but it makes sense to Juno; a tough Asian chick who’s the natural leader of this group of friends. To listen to her, it kind of does make sense though. It’s an easy layout to traverse, nothing dangerous, more of a scenic vacation than anything else. Juno also brings along Holly; a newcomer who, if anything, is even more fearless to her mentor. The kid’s bored by the whole thing and considers it beneath her.

The group rappels down into the gigantic entrance to the cave and almost immediately has to navigate a tight squeeze. It’s so tight that Sarah gets stuck. This scene had my own claustrophobia revving so hard into overdrive that I was literally nauseous with waves of sympathetic terror. As they try to get Sarah out the squeeze collapses and traps them all inside a vast labyrinth of low tunnels and long drops and giant chambers. Luckily, there are two other exits… are there? Seeing their dire predicament, Juno makes a shamed admission. This isn’t the easy cave they were supposed to explore. This is an entirely new system that she’s found and it’s not on any map. No one’s going to come help them because no one knows where they really are. If they don’t get out by themselves, they’re not getting out period. Even worse, they’re not alone and whatever’s out there in the dark is hungry.

Writer and Director Neil Marshall’s story is fairly cliché, a bunch of people trapped in a remote location fight the native inhuman inhabitants as they try to escape, Ho-hum. But there are many more layers of subtlety here than you’d first notice. For one thing, note how masterfully he manipulates the dialogue. He never has characters say things that you wouldn’t think a normal person in their shoes would say and puts heavy emphasis on meaningful silences and suggestion to enhance the narrative. I liked that. In an age of “cool” catchphrases it was refreshingly minimalistic. Also, plotwise he makes the very good decision to leave some occurrences open ended. For obvious reasons I can’t go into detail, but what he essentially did was craft a movie that makes perfect sense if you watch it one way; but whose events can be re-interpreted several completely different ways depending on which of the subtle clues to the contrary that you notice. It’s almost Memento-ish.

The cinematography by Sam McCurdy is fresh and inventive. You wouldn’t think he could get much mileage out of such enclosed scenery like a cave, but he always knows where to put his camera and makes for a gorgeous looking movie. Credit must also be given to the score by David Julyan that echoes everything from The Thing to The Last of the Mohicans yet is still thematically cohesive.

All in all, this is an accessible art house horror film whose trailer and premise do not do justice to the end result. I will fully admit to the fact that the film probably affected me more because it plays on some deep seated fears of mine, so maybe you wouldn’t rank it as high as I did. However, I was not the only person who was pleasantly surprised as I walked out of the screening. Most people seemed to have expected something so-so and ended up impressed. I think you will too.



Posted on August 6, 2006 in Reviews by
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One Comment on "THE DESCENT"

  1. Marcelo on Wed, 7th Apr 2010 10:48 am 

    I totally agree with you. I went to see it with few expectations because the plot I read seemed to me like one more of the bunch. I loved it and after many days I am still defining why I liked it that much. As you said, there are layers and layers to be unwrapped and, the more I dive deeper into it the more I like it.


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