« Home | Wah-Wah (2005) » | Star Wars Retrospective: Part I (The Prequels) » | The Fountain » | Dog Days and Newfound Opportunities » | The Birth of a Nation (1915) » | A Musical Throwback » | Sin City (2005) » | Office Space (1999) » | Napoleon Dynamite (2004) » | Crimson Gold (2003) »

The Descent (2005)

The Descent’s adherence to horror conventions proves to be a double-edged sword, effective in providing some of the most genuine and lasting scares as any film of the past decade, and reductive in its superficially mundane handling of its human characters. The opening act establishes the whos and whats of its all female cast, a group of friends all handily preformatted with archetypal character traits that will alternately mesh and clash as the progressing events necessitate. The first twenty minutes are a patience-testing bunch, laying on the superficial sense of familiarity too many films mistake for genuine character establishment with reckless abandon. Any true veteran of the genre will know in detail where future events are heading, if only thanks to two overly obvious indicator shots, and it is in this aspect that the film condescends to easy build-up and pay-off plot tactics; what is so ultimately surprising, then, is how effective the overall payoff is when the movie finally moves beyond the routine BS and dives headfirst into its visceral intentions.

Lacking both the intimate primal immediacy of The Blair Witch Project and the shattered-routine overtones of Wolf Creek, The Descent’s slick aesthetic only truly comes alive when its protagonists finally begin the titular descent into the underground cave system that makes up the bulk of the film, with heavy emphasis placed on the crushing claustrophobia and the utter frailty of the human form when pitted against the unforgiving elements of nature. Without typical establishing shots or attempts at creating a sense of spacial relationship, the sense of helplessness is projected back onto the viewer without mercy. The Descent repeatedly follows the “boo” moment orchestration to a key, but makes such supreme usage of its location as to increase their effectiveness even when they are completely predictable (for the record, any film that causes me to inadvertently shout “holy fucking shit” in a crowded theater must be doing something right). The completely natural horror elements of this film would be sufficient enough, but a further twist is presented in the form of a race of carnivorous man-like albino beings living underground and ready to attack the largely helpless humans: blind, pale and craggly, they make The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum appear cute and cuddly by comparison.

Moments of the progressing horror set pieces, particularly building up to the climax, continue to tap into the poorly established character conflicts and thus are less than enthralling, but this is the rare case where the benefits afforded by a weak structure are strong enough that I’m able to forgive the films more basic sins. Like Alien before it, The Descent begs for feminist readings and probing into its laden sexual imagery, but the scattershot limpness with which the film explores these elements itself suggests that they are better left behind so that the relentless scares can flourish unhampered. The nature of the humanoid villains suggests more ideas (particularly of Darwin descent) than the film itself offers, but that aside, they are still a bunch of creepy motherfuckers. Homages to genre predecessors abound, as well as plenty of non-horror films, none more striking than the apocalyptic baptism of the newly empowered Sarah, who takes on the aura of a Kill Bill Bride as she emerges from a bloody pool not unlike Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now; in her greatest moments of triumph, she appears more like the cave creatures she is forced to overcome than her human self. The reductive character treatment is an absolute disappointment (preventing it from achieving truly great status), but the maelstrom of terror at the films center almost makes up for its more cardinal sins.

P.S. If you see the film in the US-side release, check the link below for the original, extended ending, and much more emotionally satisfying ending (it’s downright insulting that the American release abandons this for a hollowly jolting conclusion).


I just saw this last night and I absolutely loved it. It's scary, bloody and completely satisfying. It's great to see that the well made genre film is still alive and kicking. By the way, I caught the British version of this so I didn't have be insulted with the watered down American ending.

Post a Comment