Movie Review | The Descent
Movie summary: A caving expedition goes horribly wrong, as the explorers become trapped and ultimately pursued by a strange breed of predators. (IMDb)
As I said in my review of A Quiet Place, horror isn't really my genre of choice when it comes to movies, but The Descent is one horror film that I absolutely love. I'm going to avoid spoilers in this review, which might mean leaving out some details, but there's a reveal in here that is utterly worth the surprise.
And when I say that, I mean that while filming this movie, the group of actresses making up the main cast ran off set in surprise on the first take. It's an excellent jump scare, primarily because this movie never uses this tactic as a crutch, making it a genuinely startling moment when it happens.
And the best thing about it is that the movie sets it up - although you do need to be watching in HD so you can make out a couple of moments in the background setting it up. No, it won't be your eyes playing tricks on you, what you'll see is exactly what you think it is.
It helps hugely that you have a great cast with no big names in it, most of whom you'll like or at least relate to in some way by the time things all start going horribly wrong. The great thing is that their problems start not long after they head underground for the cave-diving adventure.
All of the women start out determined to have a good time and help lift the spirits of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who lost her family and is still grieving. Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has ulterior motives for doing so that came back to haunt her in shocking ways, including getting them lost underground in the first place.
Sarah's other best friend, Beth (Alex Reid), is there in genuine support and was my favourite character up until her exit from the film thanks to a shocking accident. The rest of the group are well-enough written and performed, but lacking the depth of the main three.
You still care about them though, which is key - plus, they never make any decision that feels false or forced. All of their reactions to what happens to them are completely understandable and believable, which serves to connect the audience to the group far better than most horror films seem capable of doing these days.
I'm trying to write this while skirting around the edges of the reveal, which sets up the more action-based final act of the film, but it's a real struggle. The last third or so isn't quite as good as what comes before, but is still pretty damn good.
In fact, it only really suffers in comparison to the tension that just keeps building and building up to the reveal, which is absorbing to say the least. Jaws may have been able to boast about stopping people from wanting to swim - The Descent will easily do the same for anyone thinking about cave-diving.
If this movie had just been more about this group trying to survive while lost underground, it would still have been an excellent film in its own right - some people would even argue that it would've been better than what we got.
However, I like the final act because it allows for a degree of world-building that I haven't really seen in a movie like this before. I can't explain what it is without spoiling the reveal, but the group do find certain pieces of evidence that provides some history and context for what they encounter that fits perfectly.
They might only be small touches, but they just add a certain weight to the world and make it all seem that much more relatable than any supernatural terror. That 'realism' is what I think sets The Descent apart for me - I just buy what's going on here far more than most other horror films.
The movie takes a physical activity that many people do as a matter of course, takes some relatable characters - many with personal issues of their own - and puts them in danger that will have you inching forward to peer into the darkness well before the horror elements ramp up - but the characters remain true to who they are and never make the same kind of dumb decisions that ruin most other horror films.
I can't speak about how the film ends without spoiling the reveal, but I will say to avoid the US version. The original ending is far bleaker and more appropriate for the film than the sequel bait that led to The Descent Part 2 - just watch this film for what it is and you'll have a great time.
The Descent is a fantastically tense movie that's arguably scarier before the reveal of what else is in the caves with the women. It's still good after that point, but the creeping sense of claustrophobic despair is replaced with action that can't quite match up.