The Descent

The Descent ★★★★

Deftly combining naturalistic, allegorical, and monster-movie horror, Neil Marshall's "The Descent" is an engrossing and effective piece of work. Slowly squeezing a frightening vice grip, Marshall's film works on numerous levels to ensure an audience is jolted, thrilled, and completely engaged by what he puts on display. It is a well-assembled, chillingly told horror film.

Following a group of six friends who explore an uncharted cave system, the film focuses on one of the friends, suffocating under the weight of tragedy. The trip is an attempt to help her heal, and the narrative at-large reflects a descent into and ascent out of grief. That undergirding metaphor is a foundation for visceral terrors that unfold when the exploration goes horribly wrong, and something is found to be lurking in the caves.

Marshall and his story layer the horror masterfully. At first, the physical thrills stem from natural elements: animals, the dangers of the cave, and the friends' lack of preparation. It is this dusty and claustrophobic horror, authentic and unrelenting, that gives way to something supernatural. There are things in the cave beyond its close quarters and crushing crags: monstrosities bred to survive in its harsh environs. Marshall builds his film as an allegory of moving on from the dark cave of tragedy and loss, but the story is savvy enough to dress that allegory with two kinds of unforgiving horror.

The interaction between cast, emotion, and environment results in an enveloping and palpable dread. Light, shadow, blood, and panic create a visual and emotional atmosphere stitched together from impactful aesthetic sensibilities and a cast that easily communicates both internal and external fear.

"The Descent" is as much about ascending from the depths of grief as it is about descending into deadly natural environments. Marshall and his script use one to elevate the other, making the film a powerful and chilling experience. With its surface-level horrors working in concert with its internal metaphors and politics, "The Descent" stands as a satisfying and layered horror film.

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