The Descent

The Descent ★★★★

"Love each day."

I'm back from my brief vacation, thankfully none of which involved free-climbing in uncharted cave systems. It did involve a house in the woods though, so I decided the only proper way to kick off my free time there was—of course—to attempt to shock myself into submission. How else am I supposed to have fun away from civilization?

I'm pleased to have survived my outing in the wilderness (there was really quite little risk of injury) to report that The Descent is a fantastically fun and quite exceptional horror film. It earns major Cool Points in a couple departments: it's a fairly low budget release (£3.5m) which never feels held back by its production, and it features an almost entirely female cast without ever resorting to lewd objectification. I don't have much opportunity to keep up to date with the horror genre, so it's really great to see that at least in some areas it retains the resourcefulness and maturity characteristic of its greatest installments.

There are several wonderful moments that I won't ruin by picking them apart here, but thanks to the film's creative twist on the "cabin in the woods" premise and to its talented filmmaking, it succeeds in leaving quite a mark on the memory even now after my own personal journey into the woods. The story builds up gradually to its climax with peeks at what lies ahead and with delicate stage-setting (outlining narrative ground rules & consequences), which makes it feel like it really earns its scares at the end. There are several quite gorgeous compositions involving careful lighting and color contrast, repeated imagery, and evocative visual metaphor, which—along with the measured, precise editing—make the film pleasantly unsettling to look at.

I also thought it had a great soundtrack, but unfortunately I'm no music expert, so I can't really explain why beyond the fact that it set up the sinister melancholy of the atmosphere perfectly.

Taken together, this is the sort of material that ought to place The Descent in contention with my personal favorite horror films, so why am I not falling head over heels for this taut, intelligent thriller? For me, there are two minor issues holding it back from competing with my all-time top 10.

The first is the simple overabundance of jump scares. I'm always really, really disappointed by jump scares. They're cheap and easy, and they don't utilize the tools at the filmmakers' disposal. Hitchcock showed us that presence can be much scarier than absence: by putting impending doom in plain view but hiding it from his characters, he proved that the way to terrify your audience is not by having monsters jump out from around a corner. That is momentary and minor fear compared to the horror of looking death in the face and knowing your protagonists are powerless to stop it. And although The Descent also features a few moments in this tradition on top of some exciting, frantically edited confrontations, there are also a fair few jump scares and after the first one you can see them march their little, shy, self-conscious heads towards the screen.

The second thing I didn't love about The Descent—and this is even more of a personal preference—is its dour, gloomy atmosphere. It succeeds quite handsomely in crafting it; our characters attempt to help each other overcome the grief of a traumatic, unexpected loss, and the tragic irony of their dive too deep into the pool of emotional liberation is heartbreaking. My problem is that not all of the characters commit a sin worthy of their punishment, and as a result I find it hard to locate a message to take away from the experience. The purpose of horror is not merely to frighten, and I had difficulty finding anything other than nihilism here. This consistency and purposelessness of the woe and desolation gives me little room to find theoretical enjoyment: the film can be read as an allegory for grief, but it is a battle the characters ultimately lose for unclear reasons. This isn't something which makes The Descent a bad movie—on the contrary, if anything it's a testament to its success—but for me the cave becomes too dark and I begin to lose hope of finding any light at its end.

Ultimately this is a beautiful, expertly crafted, and exceptionally memorable installment in the horror franchise, and the fact that it won't be making it into my personal favorites hopefully won't stop others from enjoying its greatness.

After discussing with fellow Letterboxders and researching a few interpretations, I've added The Descent to my Rewatch List.

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