Halloween Horror Movie Month: The Descent (2005)

As if cave-diving couldn’t get any freakier.

In a remote mountain range, six girlfriends meet for their yearly adventure, a caving trip into the arteries of the earth. The group makes their way through the remote cave system, enjoying the hazardous but beautiful surroundings. However, they end-up trapped after a break in the cave and somehow find their problems with a bunch of humanoid-like creatures that have come to eat them alive.

I don’t know about any of you out there, but cave-diving is definitely not one of the main things I feel like I need to do in my life before I die. That’s mainly because it’s terribly claustrophobic and the idea that I could get stuck down there without anybody ever really being able to save me is just all the more frightening and gives me more of a reason not to do it. However, I can now add weird-looking, albino creatures to that list of reasons as well.

That whole fear of claustrophobia is what writer/director Neil Marshall taps into very well and what kept me so damn interested from start-to-finish. Actually, the first 45 minutes or so is just all about these gals crawling down small-ass caves and barely making it out is what kept me watching and wondering just when shit is finally going to blow-off. Thankfully, once shit does start to blow-off, it blows-off in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or unnecessary whatsoever, and that’s the way I like my horror movies, man.

I’m just going to go right out and say it, but this movie surprised the hell out of me. Before I saw it, I knew it was going to be good but what really got me the most was how the transition from cave-diving spectacle, to full-on escape/action-flick felt realistic and just kept me involved so much more. Maybe calling it an escape/action-flick isn’t doing the whole “horror-element” of this film any justice, mainly because I feel like that was the weakest part of the movie. Some of the scares here are effective and come out of nowhere at times, but other times, feel calculated as if you know Marshall was going to get us with a boo-scare eventually because I mean honestly, is he going to go that against the typical, North American-view of horror movies? That’s not really a rip on Marshall, necessarily, because a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do in some cases, but it definitely seemed like something was clicking for me enough on that end to really hit me hard.

What did hit me hard was when Marshall decides to kick his story into high-gear and allow us to sit on-the-edge-of-our-seats wondering just what the hell is going to happen next, as we await each and every one of these girls’ impending dooms. That’s a terrible thing to say about characters in a horror movie, but here, you just feel like nothing is going to go right for them but that’s where this movie surprises you: these beotches fight back and actually kick some ass. This is where the movie becomes very unpredictable as not everyone here feels like a damsel-in-distress who needs to be saved from her knight in shining armor. They can all stick up for themselves and give these weird-looking S.O.B’s a run for their money in terms of killing bitches one-by-one.

And god, did all of this action and craziness just look so bloody, beautiful. Since a lot of this film is shown through night-lights and flash-lights that the girls bring around with them, there’s very few chances for Marshall to really get artsy at all with this look and feel for the movie, but he somehow finds a way to, in a very horror-ish kind of way. I don’t want to go right out there and state that this is a gory film, because it really isn’t, but still does use gore when it’s needed and really stays in your head, long after it’s over. You don’t see too many colors, but when they do show-up, they are usually in red and green and both colors have a distinct-look that makes this film a hell of a lot more creepier than it already was before. Even when the blood and gore does somehow find it’s way into the movie, it feels deserved and never for once feels like Marshall’s way of just throwing ketchup around, just for the sake of doing so. No, he’s no Eli Roth and I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or bad thing. I think I’m starting to go with the 1st thought. Sorry Eli, you can always depend on Tarantino to keep your relevant.

And where Roth follows the usual conventions of horror-movies, Marshall necessarily does not, in terms of the cast that he picks. It may come off as a big surprise to most people seeing this movie, but this full female-cast actually worked in Marshall’s favor because it not only provides a larger-sense of danger and unpredictability for these gals, but also allows us to get to know them before we go off and see them shipped-away to cannibals. The whole cast is pretty damn good, with Shauna Macdonald doing the best job here as Sarah, a woman who’s kid and husband died a year before she goes out cave-diving. What I liked so much about Macdonald here is that the girl really seemed like she was going to annoy the shit out of me the whole way, but suddenly, grasps a change of heart and decides to fuck-up everything that stands in her way and it’s great to watch as she goes through this transformation, and even better because you know it’s all done by a female, not a masculine piece of crap like a male.

However, everything was going fine and dandy for me in this straight-forward horror flick, that was until, Marshall decided to pull a High Tension-twist ending on me and ruined half of my experience. Without giving too much away, I’m just going to go right out and state that the whole twist to the movie makes it feel a bit cheap and as if Marshall had that bright idea go off in his head that made him think that twist-endings really spice the whole story up once it’s all said and done. It doesn’t really give us our traditional, Hollywood ending we’re all so happy and used to seeing, but it’s not that element of the ending that bothers me, it’s just the fact that it doesn’t seem needed and could have just ended in a way that didn’t need any more interpretation whatsoever. This is horror people, not a Kubrick film.

Consensus: High Tension fully functions as a tense, edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride that is unrelenting in the violence and gore it shows, doesn’t show, and keeps you waiting for, even if the pay-off may not be what you would want the most from a film of this nature.




    I wonder if you would’ve preferred the U.S. theatrical ending; where it stops right when Sarah finds Juno in the car next to her. I prefer that one to the director’s cut ending (unless the theatrical is what you watched) in the cave. The director’s ending is OK but it just kinda pissed everything away on a note that didn’t go with the intensity of what preceded it. At least the theatrical end had a WTF/jump effect to it — and it still had the same vibe that Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay for our main character.

    Anyway, good stuff. I haven’t seen The Descent for a couple years and your writings on it have got me looking to check it out again.

    • I still don’t know what ending I saw, but it was the twist that I didn’t like and sort of ruined the whole experience for me. But I still had a great time and still was very scared.

  2. I love the monsters in this flick. They’re utter savages.

    You’re right about the ending though, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. The ending alone took this from a 9, to an 8 for me.

    (check the start of your last paragraph, I think you mixed two films together)

  3. I’ve always been a little too scared to check this out, but I think after reading this I will take a look. I agree re cave diving, I can think of nothing creepier. Sanctum was another film of recent years that showed just what a nightmare a cave diving expedition could turn into. I quite liked that film, but it is far less well regarded than this one.

  4. The Director’s Cut ending is the way to go. It shows that Sarah has truly lost her mind and that she’ll be trapped down there forever. The U.S. ending and the sequel? Meh. #2 wasn’t terrible, but you have to base the film solely by the U.S. ending, and I don’t like that aspect of it.

  5. Christ how I love Descent. Good review here, Dan.

    I don’t want to give away anything either, but the ending I saw of this movie in theaters is different than the one on DVD. I’m a little curious as to the one you watched.

    • So I hear. I don’t know what ending I saw, but what I do know is that I didn’t like it and didn’t do anything for me except sort of tick me off. Thanks though, Alex!

  6. Just saw this for the first time as well, and I loved the hell out of it. One of the best horror movies I have seen in a while. I’m surprised you didn’t like the ending though. I thought it was brilliant, though from what I hear the U.S. version completely ruined it.

  7. Reading the comments, I didn’t even realize there were multiple endings. The one I saw at least I found to be very satisfying.

    Good review, Dan. This one definitely surprised me as well the first time I saw it. Probably one of the most, dare I say, DECENT (sorry! :P) horror movies I’ve seen in a long while!

    • It’s a very good one, that isn’t perfect, but doesn’t need to be. It’s just having a hell of a time with itself being creepy as hell. Thanks Chris!

  8. I honestly think this was the last terrifying movie I saw in theaters. And that was…how many years ago? A very long time. I literally felt claustrophobic and overwhelmed by the amount of bone and core I saw. Both endings are tragic and dissatisfying to a degree….i just wanted that character to catch a break, poor thing!

  9. Wonderful review, glad you liked the film! It’s one of my all time favorite horrors, I love its ending – it’s such a great potrayal of madness and solitude. I actually thought there was plenty of gore, especially when the main girl was pretending to be dead and those creatures were climbling on her, all bloody. Such a disturbing film.

    • It was gory, but it wasn’t trying to use that for scares. It was still scary just by using it’s creepy atmosphere and mood and that’s what I liked about it the most. Thanks Sati!

  10. I don’t tend to like horror movies, but I liked this one. Not really because of the horror elements, but because of the dynamics among the women. It raises a great question on whether this film is pro-women because of how they are not helpless victims, or is it anti-women because they start to turn on each other when the chips are down. I agree the ending seemed forced and unnecessary.

    • The whole point is that women can kick just as much ass as men. Hahah no, I don’t really know but it was a brilliant use of all women in a horror-movie cast.

  11. I actually remember watching this as a child. Wait, it was 2005. So, that would mean I was around 12 at the time. Yeah, you know what pissed me off and spoiled the movie for me? That ending. At the young age of 12, I was pissed off by that ending. I think that just goes to show how irritating the ending in this film is.

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