Having found most of his TV work rather uninspiring, I was surprised by how impressed I was with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. While I don’t think it’s a great film, there’s more of interest here than in his episodes of Game of Thrones or even the more directly comparable Hannibal.
The setup is familiar: A grieving young woman recovering from a tragic accident goes out on a trip with her friends and encounters a violent horror. Like most horror films with such a premise, The Descent uses its labyrinthine caves and vicious monsters as metaphors for overcoming trauma. I wrote about this trope recently, specifically about how horror films present a pessimistic vision of the healing process by virtue of the realities of studio filmmaking. The Descent has its cake and eats it too in this regard. It was released with two endings, the original one for the U.K. and an edited version for the U.S. In the latter, main character Sarah escapes the caves, but is haunted by a vision of the friend she left behind to save herself. In the former, the scene goes on to reveal that her escape was itself a hallucination, and she’s still trapped in the caves as the credits roll. The original ending was deemed too dark for American audiences (post-9/11 Hollywood was wild) but I actually prefer the edited version. It suggests something more profound about the immortality of trauma — you may feel like you’ve escaped, but the past never really leaves you.
While the first 15 minutes or so are clumsily edited, this awkwardness becomes a strength once the film enters the caves. The choppiness of the cuts turns dark shots of small flashlight beams into abstract light shows, where the lack of coherent composition is itself the image. The idea of “oh the editing is so rapid, it’s meant to be disorienting just like the characters are disoriented” is a little banal but it’s applicable here. It’s as hard to find your way visually through The Descent as it is for the characters to find their way through the caves.
This is accompanied by some arresting use of lighting. Besides the flashlights, which tend to be pointed towards the camera and thus rarely illuminate the surroundings, red flares give striking shape to the craggy caverns and green light tubes create a more unsettling and alien glow. These single-color scenes help make the caves feel less like a real place on Earth and more like a supernatural space-between. This really enhances the film’s attempts at horror, and it can use all the help it can get in that department.
If there’s a main problem with The Descent, it’s that it isn’t scary. It starts out well enough, seeding tiny hints at its monsters throughout unrelated tense setpieces. An early glimpse of one engulfed in blackness before it skitters away is properly frightening. It falls apart in the film’s second half, though. After a certain point, The Descent stops withholding its creatures and starts shoving them in your face. I’m normally skeptical of the old bromide that a film monster is scarier the less you see of it, but it’s true here. The pale-skinned creatures are less scary the more you see of them, and Marshall shows us every inch. He makes no effort to conceal them with his camera or in editing. And the more you see them, the more their humanity becomes apparent, the less they represent the terror of the unknown lurking in the dark. They don’t lurk enough.
The Descent really is a tale of two halves. All the cave scenes before the first creature attack are phenomenally creepy. Very little of what follows is worthwhile. I wish the film had stuck to its guns and kept the creatures at a distance, kept them in the shadows, kept them away from the camera (if at least not the characters). If I was let down by The Descent, it’s only because it seemed so promising at the outset.