The Descent

The Descent ★★★★½

"The Descent" is in my top ten of horror movies, although really it's more like a terrifying psychological drama where internal demons are being experienced through external horrors. It's an ensemble piece, with six competent and courageous women exploring a cave system together, and for much of the film's run-time there are no supernatural / monstrous elements involved. This could just be a drama about women trapped underground through a series of misfortunes. Then, of course, things get worse... far worse. It's buttressed by some beautiful camera work and initial cinematography as well as an effective and unsettling score by David Julyan (who scored many of Christopher Nolan's early films).

What really adds depth to the film is the personal tragedy Sarah faces in the film's opening moments, and this descent into loss (and perhaps madness) parallels the group's descent into the underdark as hopefully a form of "therapy" to help Sarah experience control over her life again. There's also a subtext that brings three of these women into conflict, if you're paying careful attention.

As stated, the film is intimidating and nerve-wracking even without the addition of the crawlers later on. If you were not claustrophobic before watching this film, you will be afterwards. Those who routinely explore dark chambers underground will be looked upon both with admiration and incredulity -- it takes both skill and cajones to repeatedly squirm your way into these tight places and trust you'll be able to get back out again.

Neil Marshall (nowadays probably best known for directing a few GoT episodes, most notably Season 2's "Blackwater," although the recent "Hellboy" reboot flop was his unfortunately) made a somewhat-companion movie previous to "The Descent" called "Dog Soldiers," an almost all-male film showing a conflict between soldiers and werewolves. The two films can't help but be counterpoints. Both possess brave characters, but the male group dynamics seem very different than the female dynamics in this film. That's the beauty of "The Descent," these aren't male characters depicted as women, they are both feminine and strong/capable and they interact in a different way than the men in the earlier film do without appearing weak in the process.

As stated, "The Descent" is both literal as well as psychological and even "moral" in a way -- we're tracking Sarah's descent into another mental state altogether and wondering if she'll ever find her way out again. Along the way she will be challenging the monsters that live in the dark of her soul and psyche even as she challenges the literal monsters in the dark. The film works on both levels simultaneously and is richer for it.

The British theatrical version (released on bluray later here as the "unrated" version) is a few minutes longer than the one released in American theaters and is more existentially bleak. Both versions actually work well (I originally saw the American version). In the shorter version, there's a more emphatic answer to the question of Sarah's "descent" morally even if it could be labeled the "more hopeful" ending, although the latter ending feels more realistic and emotionally complex. Regardless of ending, the film lingers on after the closing credits finish.