31 Days of Fear: The Descent

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In Too Deep

by Dave Roper


Director Neil Marshall made a big splash with Dog Soldiers, adding real scares to genuine thrills and laughs and showing a clear passion for and understanding of genre film-making. However, it was through his follow-up effort, The Descent, that Marshall really made his mark.

Some reviews deliberately steered clear of any details whatsoever of what the meat of the narrative entailed, but we have enough distance now for it to feel safe to consider such matters here. A group of women go caving in the Appalachian Mountains, partly to help one of their number try to cast off the trauma of losing her family in a tragic (but breathtakingly well staged and delivered) car accident. Another member of the group decides that leaving the maps behind will make the adventure more interesting and when they are cut off by a cave-in behind them, they realise that the only hope of escape lies in pressing on and out of the other side of the network of caves into which they have ventured. But they are not alone……

The joys of The Descent are manifold. The creatures that live underground (mutant, virtually blind cannibals) are horrifically and compellingly designed and performed and Marshall relies for the lighting of his scenes throughout the film on only the sources of light available to the characters – torches, flares and in the film’s best moment, a camcorder with a night-vision lens. As the camera pans across the group, we pick up a dead-eyed (or no-eyed) creature lurking behind the shoulder of one of the group and then, all hell very much breaks loose.

Set pieces such as the group’s first encounter with these creatures are delivered in a bravura fashion that manage to convey the chaos, confusion and terror of the encounter, without proving chaotic or confusing for the audience. We suffer some of their disorientation, but we are able to comprehend what is happening, to whom and where. But this is about so much more than a couple of compelling set pieces. There is an atmosphere of dread and despair throughout, which is hard to explain or quantify but impossible to ignore and right up to the breath-taking, hope crushing denouement, Marshall refuses to let up, tension and oppression mounting inexorably. The final shot genuinely continues to haunt me to this day and I haven’t seen the film for close to ten years.

Marshall hasn’t come close to something as accomplished as The Descent since then, so treat yourself to something to haunt your Halloween (and most of the next six months too).

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