The Descent marks British writer/director Neil Marshall’s second horror outing since the understated Dog Soldiers (2002), which pitted adrenaline junkie British squaddies on a routine training exhibition in the Scottish highlands, against werewolves in a tongue in cheek blood drenched battle for survival. The Descent marks a more serious attitude towards horror, one that drops the humour and concentrates on a dangerously psychological situation with thick tension and serious scares. And it’s a move that is undoubtedly going to launch him into the big—time.
…but more important is the essential horror philosophy that the only thing scarier than the dark is each other.
The story follows a group of six adrenaline junkie women (sound familiar? – it isn’t!) obsessed with extreme sports, who attempt the trip of a lifetime by cave diving into an unknown pot hole in the Appalachian mountains. About a mile underground the entrance caves in and they have about eight hours of light left in their torches in which to find a way out. To make matters worse one of the divers had recently suffered a massive bereavement and two are inexperienced pot—holers. The film represents a bold move in combining the near death distress and bone crunching shocks of Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003), with the extreme psychological pressure of sci—fi films such as Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997). Leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) highlights some of the side effects of being consumed in darkness, namely claustrophobia, paranoia and hallucinations which the films trowels out in masses, but more important is the essential horror philosophy that the only thing scarier than the dark is each other.
The most impressive aspect in this film is the concept, and if the concepts good the film is eighty per cent there. In a period where we see a lot of horror films, most of them substandard remakes of Japanese horror (few of them very good) — this film represents a conquest of concept over budget. Marshall clearly knows his stuff, and the craggy cave surfaces, claustrophobic environments and smatterings of pitch black darkness; coupled with the expert use of lighting from helmet torches, glow sticks, red flares and a grainy infrared camera; creating the perfect atmosphere for a plethora of bone crunching blood splattered violence, and more shocks and scares than most of the horror films of the past three years put together. And to top it off we have a few Final Girls who would make Freddy and Jason wince.
Marshall doesn’t hold back for a second and comes out on top with a triumph of originality and fright; in a horror market that’s distinctly lacking either. Seriously scary. Seriously violent. Seriously good.