In the summer of 2005, I went to see the second film by British director, Neil Marshall. I had enjoyed Dog Soldiers immensely but reviews had warned me that this was very different, and they were not kidding. Within the first five minutes of the film I had jumped out of my seat and been thrust into a thoroughly bleak and uncaring filmic world. Then things got nasty.
The Descent is, quite simply, the most harrowing experience I have ever had in a cinema, and subsequent viewings on DVD have not dimmed my appreciation/trauma. The films included in this list all feature threatening environments, and no environment could be more threatening than a cave, many hundreds of metres below ground, surrounded by solid rock and no possibility of rescue (at sea, there is a chance you might be spotted). I am not claustrophobic, but I felt utterly trapped as I watched the plight of the six characters; it also put me off caving for the foreseeable future. I think much of the film’s claustrophobia was brought on by the simple technique of having the actors light themselves. This restricts our view to what they can see, and therefore draws us closer to them, increasing our empathy for their dire situation. The cruelty I have mentioned previously is not only in the cinematography, which is less distant than the other films in this list, but also in the mise-en-scene: hard, unyielding rock without any give or semblance of mercy. The sea of Jaws is uncaring, but the caves of The Descent are utterly brutal, serving as both enclosure and obstacle as our heroines struggle and battle to escape.
Battling is also key to the drama and the horror of The Descent. The eponymous downward motion refers not only to the physical journey, but the psychological disintegration of the group. When panic sets in, they all start to lose their grip, shouting at each other and casting blame. Not that the assignment of blame is without reason – Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is responsible for them being in an unknown cave and in grave danger, but casting blame will not get them out and Juno proves the most capable, maintaining authority as they need to focus on escape if they are to survive. Yet the panic continues to grow, such as when Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) glimpses what she believes is daylight and runs recklessly towards it. Holly is an experienced caver and should know better, but her descent into panic and recklessness has progressed to the state where she runs straight into a fall that breaks her leg. Marshall does not skimp on the grisly details, as Holly’s agonising injury is presented in graphic detail, as are other injuries that the characters later sustain.
Most of this terror occurs in the first hour of the film, before anything nasty has appeared. The fear is generated entirely from the environment and the situation, and by this stage, there have been at least two major jumps, terrible events and an increasingly desperate situation. One hour in I was already terrified, and had the film continued in that vein, it would have been frightening enough because of the steadily increasing suspense. When all hell really breaks loose with the appearance of the crawlers, the film could have descended (sorry) into a wild, gory free-for-all, which might not have been scary. Remarkably, the film maintains tension for its second half, including some truly nerve-shredding sequences. There are further moments of (literally) bone-crunching violence, and also scenes of sheer helplessness. Empathy and suspense reinforce each other at these moments, such as when three of the women make an agonisingly painful climb across a deep chasm. Their helplessness in the face of overwhelming odds mean the viewer is not only afraid for what might happen, but desperately sad when something does.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the crawlers are thoroughly scary. Their initial appearances are as shadowy glimpses, and the moment I first saw one in all its horrific glory, I actually screamed in the cinema, which is a very rare occurrence. On subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming, I still jump and give a little yelp. Nor do the crawlers simply look horrible, as they are among the most vicious monsters ever to grace a screen. Their assaults upon our heroines are a debasement, turning human beings into meat that will be torn apart with no regard. The attack of the crawlers therefore is another descent, both of the characters into prey, and the descent of humans into predatory animals, as the crawlers are themselves at least anatomically human.
The descent of humanity is also expressed in the central character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). From the beginning of the film she is steadily stripped of the features of civilisation, culminating in her virtual transformation into a primitive beast. Improvising weapons out of rocks, antlers and fire, stained with the blood of her enemies, she becomes nearly as frightening as the crawlers. Yet her transformation provides at best only a brief victory, as her later confrontation with Juno is as vicious as anything yet encountered. Tragically, Juno tells Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) that she must save Sarah, and their time spent fighting shoulder-to-shoulder is all too brief. Sarah is the Final Girl, but the film’s final twist (at least in the British cut) confirms just how cruel The Descent truly is.
I have mentioned in previous posts the cruelty and indifference expressed by the camera of horror cinema. Crucial to The Descent’s place as my Number One Frightful Film is its unrelenting cruelty: the suffering experienced by Sarah; the awful situation the women find themselves in; the claustrophobic mise-en-scene; the hideousness and the viciousness of the crawlers; the descent into conflict and eventual savagery; the devastating finale which ranks alongside Se7en and The Mist for a vicious kick in the teeth that leaves one feeling a sense of abject horror. Abjection is perhaps the lowest state to which anyone can sink – the knowledge that no matter what you do, your life has been ruined, you have been ruined and you are going to die horribly. Some films offer this state, but few combine it with unrelenting tension, severe emotional discomfort, major shocks and a profound sense of loss and pain. The Descent manages all of this and more, making it my Number One Frightful Film, and a really, really good one as well.