The Descent first published by Movie Gazette, 27 June, 2005
In 2002, writer/director Neil Marshall had his feature debut with Dog Soldiers, bringing a group of squaddies on manœuvres into collision with a hungry pack of werewolves in the Scottish Highlands – a gripping, funny and satisfyingly gory shocker which put new hair on the back of a British horror industry desperately in need of disinterment. Viewed superficially, his latest film The Descent might be regarded as a mirror image of his first – for here again six characters are placed in a hostile wilderness, and at a time when they most need to cooperate against deadly foes, they instead turn upon each another. Yet this time the characters are women rather than men, hilarity has been replaced by hysteria, and there is a psychological depth to the film reflecting a new maturity in Marshall’s writing.
After surviving an accident in which her husband and young daughter were killed, and enduring a year of profound mental breakdown, guilt and trauma in hospital, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is at last trying to leave her personal demons behind and claw her way back into the real world. So she joins her old friends, loyal Beth (Alex Reid) and not so loyal Juno (Natalie Mendoza), on a six-woman caving expedition in the Appalachian Mountains – but when the tunnel that they have been using collapses behind them, the women find themselves groping about for an exit without a map. With supplies and morale running low, the group begins to fall apart – and down there with them in the dark lurks something primæval and violent, eager to hunt down any unwelcome visitors who intrude into the maze-like depths.
When it is discovered that Juno has deliberately led the group into an uncharted system, one of the more experienced explorers (Saskia Mulder) feels compelled to declare, “this is not caving, this is an ego trip” – thereby unwittingly giving expression to the interpretative crux with which Marshall’s film confronts its viewers. For like the two-mouthed cave in which the six find themselves entombed, The Descent presents not one, but two approaches to its horror. On the one hand it can be regarded as a conventional (if effective) survivalist creature feature akin to, say, Alien or The Thing – while on the other, all the claustrophobic passageways, extreme isolation, shifting shadows and primordial bestiality can be seen as a vivid metaphor for the descent of a mind into a state of primal fear, rage and despair, with the narrative never leaving Sarah’s disturbed headspace. This ambiguity runs deep through the film, and Marshall wisely leaves viewers to resolve it by themselves in the dark cavern of the cinema – but no matter which path you choose to take through the labyrinth that The Descent excavates, there is in the end no way out, making the film as chillingly bleak as horror can be.
Unmistakable evocations of both The Shining (aerials of a road snaking through forest wilds, and a final image of a monochrome group photo), and of Apocalypse Now (a character slowly rises head first from beneath a liquid surface) serve to reinforce the film’s themes of lost minds and atavistic regressions – while the image of a hand emerging from the ground, familiar from countless zombie movies, marks the protagonist, symbolically at least, as one of the living dead. Yet it is the film’s simplest visuals, of women crawling, creeping and clambering for their lives amidst the rough, ill-lit surfaces of the cave system (all shot, in fact, on constructed sets at Pinewood Studios), that allow The Descent to tap into the most primitive human terrors – fear of the dark, of the unknown, and of ourselves.
strap: Neil Marshall’s dark labyrinth of trauma, treachery and troglodytes sets terrifying traps for the mind.