The Descent is a thrills and chills horror that draws blood from stone. Set in the claustrophobic depths of an uncharted cave, it is gory, tense and skittish. From loose foundations, Geordie director Neil Marshall builds a scare-fest worthy of the lineage it quotes – Carrie, Aliens and Nosferatu are among the most striking visual cues – with all rising to a blistering final act and brutally satisfying close. Certainly, it is hard not to think twice about ever going caving again as the credits role.
Some horror films establish themselves through broad and stock characterisation, with one protagonist in the film likely to be po-faced and another the class clown, allowing for a quicker segue to the meat of the thing. Here, however, this is not quite so. In an admirable attempt at would be realism, Marshall’s characters are less distinctive than one might expect and simply get on with their trials rather than innocuously following pre-set arcs and journeys. The result is a dynamic that feels a touch too mundane to prove effective and only adds to the confusion stirred by Marshall’s wilfully choppy approach to editing. That this mode pays off as the film progresses is undeniable; earlier, on the other hand, it is often hard to decipher quite who is doing what to whom.
Shauna Macdonald’s Sarah Carter is the most developed of the film’s six leading ladies, bearing, as she does throughout, the traumas of the tragic past we are privy to in an opening flashback. A year on from the death of her husband and daughter, Sarah travels to the home of – once much closer – friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) for a spelunking adventure in the Appalachian Mountains; the pair are joined there by: Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Burning), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Whilst there is little to distinguish the sextet as individuals – Sarah has anxiety issues and Juno’s a thrill-seeker – it is remarkable how unique it still feels to watch a horror film in which women are strong and resourceful as much as they are scared. The experience is mercifully unexploitative and wholly rewarding.
Strength and resourcefulness prove vital traits to possess as the group descend into a cave and find it a little more occupied than an ‘uncharted’ cave has any right to be. A cursory initial dependence on jump scares – ye olde flock of birds from nowhere trick – quickly submits to give way to a more satisfying escalation in tension. Marshall’s is a film which will surely benefit repeat viewings, even only to give audiences the opportunity to confirm whether they really did see that on the left of the screen. Flashes of diegetic light – blood red and uneasy green flares, headlights and infrared cinecams – illuminate the film’s pitch black set, revealing scraps but allowing the imagination to do the hard work. As it should be.
Impressively, nothing here belies the film’s small budget. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy does wonders with Marshall’s snatches of light, whilst one would be hard pressed to pin down the joins in Simon Bowles exquisite production design. Constructed and shot at Pinewood, the caves are viscerally real – damp, scabbard, airless – and believably intense; miniature model work does only to add to the scale of these sets. The prosthetic creatures within, meanwhile, are well mounted and gain memorability by virtue of the stylish choreography and broken editing that combine to give them jittery movement.
Holding back on any over-revelatory visual whole, Marshall enables frissons of true fear to bubble through the broiling tension of his structure. There’s gore aplenty for those who like their horror bloody but it’s the psychological entrapment at play in the film that’ll keep audiences awake.