The golden age of horror: The Descent (2005)

Title The golden age of horror: The Descent (2005)
Author Chris Hornbostel and Bill Cunningham
Posted in Features
When October 14, 2014

Bill: As far as I'm concerned, The Descent has two monsters: the blind, inbred cannibals that make up the active participants in the downfall of our heroines, and the claustrophobic spaces within which this struggle takes place..

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Didn't like the dream ending either. I didn't know it wasn't the only one, though.

I remember Juno being a reckless idiot, but she was athletic and fabulous and badass. So go team Juno I guess.

This movie has what I think is one of the most effective scares of all time. It's sort of a jump cut but not really. When they're at the cabin near the beginning, Sarah wakes up in the middle of the night and goes to the window. I won't spoil what happens, but in a split second you realize just how messed up she still is over the accident. She takes pills to calm herself, but in that split second you instantly know WHY she chugs those pills. The fact that the moment is completely free of any loud music makes it all the more effective and chilling; a lesser movie would kick in the screeching violins.

Now, with that scene in mind, when I watched this movie for the first time, I honestly thought they were setting it up to turn out that there weren't any monsters. It turns out that they were hallucinations inside Sarah's head; she had snapped and it was her who was killing all the women. It's been a long time since I watched it so I can't be sure if this is accurate, but there were 3 things to support this. First, all the really messed up stuff happens when she's alone: the bone pit and the blood pit. Second, Sarah is never shown to be present whenever a monster kills one of the women. She is unaccounted for somewhere else while the "monsters" rampage around picking them off in the confusing darkness. Third, I seem to remember that the number of monsters killed was equal to the number of women besides Sarah. I could be wrong about that though.

Oh man, i'm surprised at the hate for The Descent. I think this movie is tremendous, pretty much from top to bottom. And, while admittedly the whole "horror movie or not" theme springing up in the comments, and on the forums, (which I've totally participated in) is getting pretty tired at this point, i'm totally flabbergasted that anyone would argue this isn't a proper horror movie.

From the horrifying suddenness of the car accident, to the bizarre scene of Sarah on the floor of the hospital hallway, people walking right by her like she's not there, to the jump scare hallucination in the cabin, to the soul-crushing weight of the cave itself, to the whispering of her dead child, man, this sucker is almost a clinic on how to craft a horror movie. And that's all before the monsters show up.

And when they do? Fucking hell, things go sideways pretty quickly for the ladies in the cave.

There is so much craft that goes into developing the characters and their relationships, hinting at subtle fissures between Juno and Sarah, suggesting with looks and comments what people know, and what they don't, about the affair, and Sarah's mental health. While it's not on the scale of The Thing, i'm reminded of how Carpenter spends some time and gives space for his characters and their relationships to develop before throwing the monster into the mix.

Also, the thing about Juno, the woman she axed (Beth?) was not dead, she was pleading with Juno not to leave her there, and Juno being Juno, left her behind, fled in a time of need. Which is exactly what she did to Sarah after the accident. She's confronted by another one of the companions earlier about how she wasn't there for Sarah, how she ran away.

And Sarah, well Sarah is obviously still emotionally scarred, and when she eventually rises out of the blood, I read that as her having completed her descent (I know, that's cheesy), and lost the remaining shreds of her humanity. She becomes more like the creatures in the cave. That could be a weak interpretation, but I'm not sure how else to explain her treatment of Juno at that point. It was a pretty shitty thing to do, that axe hit to the leg.

Scott I definitely liked it, I just couldn't help wonder what could have been crafted by never showing the morloks or whatever and just letting us hear them, or see evidence of their presence and letting the 6 women Blair Witch themselves. And while I did like the more actiony sequences and thought the creatures were OK, there's a movie coming up that gives us an unflinching butcher's view of its creature, and that particular view is going to never not be in my movie scare memory banks.

If it's the monster I'm thinking about, I'm with you. Boy, am I with you.


I mentioned the difference between Alien and Aliens in my comments in the piece. So I'm curious, would you consider Aliens to be a true horror film? Or would you consider it (as many do) a really great action film first and foremost?

And It's not that I hate the film. I actually enjoyed it and I do say some nice things about it. I just didn't think it was at the level of greatness that would merit having it held up as an example of a golden age of horror.

As for Juno leaving behind Beth? I was under the impression that she was definitely a goner before Juno ambled off in a state of shock. But even if she were still gurgling before Juno left earshot, you have to remember that she was completely shell shocked.

I'm still Team Juno, damn it!

Completely off course: One thing I didn't get to bring up in the article was my love of the Adam and Ants/Fine Young Cannibals dance number in the cannibal camp in Marshall's follow up film, Doomsday ( I cannot recommend that scene enough. The rest of the movie is kind of "meh"...but watching a mohawked, Road Warrior-esque human flesh eater gallivanting around to those songs is worth the entire price of admission. Watch it, love it, live it!

We'll find out tonight, he said, without spoiler tags...

You guys put this up a day ago and I've been thinking about it constantly since you put up this post. I'm just thinking about the connection between what a movie really is, and what the experience of seeing it makes it. For me that is so often difficult as a critic. That separation.

Whenever I think of The Descent, I think of the experience of seeing it more than I think of the actual movie. Of the experience of seeing it for the first time. Midnight movie at Sundance. Packed house in the library screening room. Me screaming at every scare like a little girl.

I don't think I've seen it since, and I'm not all that interested in revisiting it but what I love about your review is how it makes me think of the movie Sanctum--which ultimately fell apart for me--and the book Blind Descent, which I loved. Because for me the greatest horror in all three of these things is the singular nature of light as a resource, and how different that is from the nature of water deprivation in the desert. Because the idea of light being completely gone, while you are so far under the earth, is utterly horrifying to me.

So when I see your post, I just sit here and wonder about discussing a movie as a piece of work, and discussing it as an experience. And thus, a memory.

Another great choice. You all are crushing it.

Thanks Christien, and HOLY CRAP I FEEL STUPID. "Light as a resource". Of course. Of...course... Dammit that's a great point, and honestly it sort of carries into REC as well. Scenes where nothing is more precious to our characters than light, or at least (in the case of REC) the ability to see in the dark.

I've done my fair share of hiking, camping and spelunking, and there is no darkness that has weight like the darkness in a cave. I felt like Marshall used that well at times...but then also wanted to give us enough light to see his monsters when he was ready for that, and I was a little bummed that he left that behind.

Yeah I totally agree, Aliens is an action film, not a horror film. That's kind of why I brought up The Thing, which for me is a better touchstone. The Thing is a horror movie with a really badass scary grotesque monster and a lot of action elements. I got the feeling The Descent was going after the same thing, and didn't read it as an action movie at all.

For me, I think the difference lies in the fact that The Thing (one of my all time favorites) and Alien both use the lone monster approach. When you add a lot of monsters, as they do in The Descent and Aliens, you change the tone quite a bit. Their status as monsters is weakened somewhat because you ALWAYS have to have the hero or heroes kill at least a few of them during the movie. Whereas the lone monster approach, you ain't doin' nothin' but slowing the sucker down.

"..discussing a movie as a piece of work, and discussing it as an experience. And thus, a memory." I think that's a tremendous thing to bring up Christien. I think horror movies have a unique capacity to sear our experience of them into our minds. All good movies do this, of course, but horror movies, even bad ones, if they frighten you, if they leave some image stuck in your mind...they can remain in your memory for a long, long time.

And for me, especially with BWP and 28 Days, the experience I had seeing those films, the memory I have of the time and place when I first saw them, are the things I'm returning to when thinkg about them, and commenting.

A movie we have coming up very soon, that people are probably going to argue about intently, (horror vs. not) seared an image so deep into my brain, that even now thinking about it, scares the shit out of me. And left me with a feeling of sad/hopelessness that was sure hard to shake.

Bingo, I think that's a great point. The monsters in The Descent become less frightening as our ladies get more adept at fighting them. The alien in Alien, and the thing in The Thing are much more terrifying, and ultimately prove to be better monsters to build a movie around. I guess that's why Alien and The Thing are all time classics, and The Descent is just a solid as hell movie.

I'm excited. I hope it's something I have seen.