Gender equality and horror movies do not get along. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. As far back as there have been horror films, there have been damsels in distress, sexy co-eds, airhead sorority girls and any number of other archetypes designed to place a woman in jeopardy with none of the traits necessary to survive. Horror movies are also more than happy to present men with similar flaws, (arrogance, simple-mindedness, an insatiable libido, etc…), but it offsets those characters with the strong, heroic male lead. Women rarely have a place in horror that doesn’t involve sex-appeal, or being cannon fodder. Classics, such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Carrie” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” show that a strong female lead can work. Rarely does a film do away with gender entirely and just show people, human beings that happen to be women, fighting for their lives. Director and screenwriter, Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” is one such example, and it’s a master-full one at that.
The story of “The Descent” centers on the lives of six tough and adventurous gals that enjoy spending their free time base-jumping, white-water rafting and spelunking. The film opens with three of them, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Beth (Alex Reid), having a blast as they steer a raft through some rapids. As the fun winds down and the three converse about their future plans, things seem to be going fine. But on the way back to the hotel, Sarah’s car is struck by a passing truck, killing her husband Paul and daughter Jessica.
A year later, the movie cuts to Beth and Sarah as they drive to a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to meet up with the rest of the girls. Juno has planned a caving expedition to bring them all back together and remind them of the good times they used to have, and to try and help Sarah take her mind off of Paul and Jessica. As they reach the cabin, the flick introduces the rest of the crew, Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and a new addition to the group, Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), who has developed a friendship with Juno. As the daylight fades, the six of them swap stories and reminisce of the old times.
Once day breaks, the six of them set-off for the cave on the trail that Juno has mapped out for them. They venture into the cave, crawl through some tight passages, and set-up a camp inside an open cavern. While the rest of the group rests, Sarah ventures a little deeper into the cave, and while peering into another cavern a shadowy figure seems to appear and disappear in the distance. Convinced that she was imaging things, the group presses on. As they make their way through another narrow passage, a tremor starts to dislodge the ceiling, causing them to lose one of their rope bags. Fearing they’re trapped, the group confronts Juno about the time it will take for rescue crews to search for them. Much to the dismay of everyone, Juno reveals that they are in a new, undiscovered system, and the flight-plan she left with mountain rescue was useless. After the realization that they are cut-off from the entrance sets in, the group concludes they have no choice but to descend further into the unknown of the cavern, and hope that there is another way out. From here, “The Descent” becomes something so exhilarating and terrifying, spoiling it with more detail would be cruel.
To call “The Descent” masterful would be unfair. The movie so effortlessly trumps so many genre-specific problems, and provides so many genuine thrills, chills and heart-stopping moments.
The films greatest strength is in its all-female cast of main characters. With six characters, it could have been easy for Marshall to slack on their development, but by the end, each of them has had enough screen time to have a distinct personality, making them identifiable as people, and therefore possible to care about. The actors all work great together, and their dialogue comes-off as natural. It really feels like these six would know and be friends with each other. When things start to go wrong, and they are forced to fight for their lives, the believability of the characters shows even more. Yes, there is a lot of screaming, running, hiding and crying, but it’s because these characters are human. The script does not dwell on the fact that they are women, it does not have one of the girls speak give a speech about sticking together, about female strength, it merely presents them as human beings. Yes, they are strong, independent women, but that is not what defines them as characters. Their genders do not make them the spunky, go-getters that they are as the film starts, or into the survivors that they are forced to become.
The direction also deserves praise, as Marshall was working with a budget of less than £3.5 million, and yet his directing, combined with the often-impressive visual effects and sets, and the punchy, close-up camerawork, make the movie feel like a real spelunking nightmare. At times, camera tends to be so close, and the cuts so frantic, that it’s hard to tell what’s going on, but to the film’s credit, it actually adds to the impact, as the characters are all in tight, claustrophobic environments, and are bumping around in the dark most of the time.
The only real weaknesses of the film are in its digital effects, and in its American release. For the most part, while the visual effects are noticeable, they never detract from the movie, as they blend in well enough with the rest of the scene. As the film goes on, and the darkness of the scenes becomes overbearing, the unnatural lighting of the digitally-generated additions really stands out, causing some issues with suspension of disbelief. The other issue is with the release of the film in the states. Without spoiling anything, the American re-cut of the film changes a major moment, undermining its impact entirely, and resulting in a much less memorable film.
It has flaws, as any movie does, but “The Descent” succeeds by being a horror movie that scares, not just shocks. It plunges its characters into the depths of despair and forces them to fight, any way they can, to stay alive, and to keep breathing. It’s a bloody, claustrophobic and truly terrifying experience, but it earns its scares, and it is an absolute must for horror fans.