FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Aug 9, 2006

The Descent

I'm hoping some of you out there ventured forth from your homes to partake in this installment of the Final Girl Film Club and went to see The Descent. I know, I has proven that fresh air is bad for us. I'm also aware that ass grooves on the couch won't make themselves, but sometimes we must sacrifice a little to get a little, my babies. Yes, it was a scary couple of hours outside of the house; lucky for me it was mostly due to the movie, but there was also that dog staring at me on my way to the car.

For those of you who were unable to check out the flick, you may want to consider turning back now and returning to this post after you've seen it. There's bound to be spoilers in the post and the comments, and I care so much that I don't want anything ruined for you. I avoided everything about The Descent save for the trailer prior to seeing it, and I think that was a good move. You can always come back later. Go on now, git! It's time for the cool kids to talk about you the movie.

Oh my GOD, I'm so glad they're gone...can you believe what they were wearing?

OK, if you're still with me, then chances are I don't need to go into a huge rehashing of the plot. 6 women enter uncharted territory on a weekend spelunking expedition. When their route back to the surface is blocked by a cave-in, the women must find another way out. As they travel deeper into the blackness of the underground maze, they soon discover that there's something very horrible and very deadly lurking in the dark.

While it's easy to spot some of the influences writer/director Neil Marshall taps into (Deliverance, The Shining, and Alien, among others), The Descent is refreshingly original. Marshall has delivered a monster movie that's so much more than a monster movie; throughout the film, he expertly exploits some of the most primal universal fears- the dark, the unknown, and small spaces- to deliver a story that's as serious as it is terrifying.

Yep, I said serious. While there are a few tension-easing lighter moments here and there, this is not a horror/comedy. It's not a parody or a self-referential ironic effort sprinkled with jokes and zingy one-liners. OK, there's one- "I'm an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider!"- but that line kicks ALOT of ass and you know it.

In fact, The Descent is so serious that it pays far greater tribute to the gritty horror classics of the 1970s than any other current film that purports to; you see, it's not the kids singing "Sweet Home Alabama" (as in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) or the helter-skelter gore and violence (House of 1000 Corpses) that capture the vibe in films like the original TCM. Those lame attempts smack of the superficial, and they nearly always miss their mark. Marshall's work recalls that of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper because on a base level Marshall knows how to craft a scary movie: he keeps the pace slow and he keeps things dark.

Visually, the film works because Marshall uses the underground setting to full effect, generally keeping it dark but also washing the screen with blues, greens and reds's eerie, but it also serves to remind us of the beauty in places like this and maybe show us why anyone in their right mind would want to go caving in the first place. While The Descent takes place in the Appalachian mountains, the film was shot both on location in Scotland and on elaborate sets. With the exception of a few clunky CGI moments, I was hard pressed to find any fakery.

As I said yesterday, Carpenter's approach to storytelling is the slow-burn method that allows the tension to build to the breaking point- then he whales on us with the climax. Marshall takes that same approach here, and the result is a rich atmosphere dripping with dread. That's not to say there's nothing much happening in the film's first reel; rather, there are several jolts and shocks that had me involuntarily slapping my hands to my cheeks in a decidedly Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone fashion. No, I'm not exaggerating...and yes, I felt like an idiot. But it happened and there I was, a happy little simpleton having the time of my life while being creeped out of my mind.

I was just so damn happy to be watching a horror movie made for adults, starring adults. The female cast was definitely nice to look at, but there weren't any big Hollywood names or artificial Hollywood bodies. They were real women and, shock of shocks, they acted like women- not girls, not teenagers, and not cliches. Even more shocking was the fact that this group of friends acted like friends! What a novel fucking concept! There was the awkwardness and the snappish moments and things unsaid you get when friends don't see each other often, but all in all they got along and seemed to actually like one another. The characters were well-drawn, the acting was far above par, and for once I found myself wanting them all to survive this journey. Well, maybe with the exception of Holly...but I knew from the moment she was introduced that she'd be the first to die. It's a staple of the horror genre: don't be cocky and brash, because your cocky brashness will lead to a quick demise...or in Holly's case, a quick demise preceeded by a long interim of pain. Man, that leg break was nasty!

This brings us to the gore content: The Descent gets two great big "eww!"s up. Once things start to go to hell for our heroines, the movie gets downright grosstastic. There's biting, chewing, ripping, cutting, slicing, smashing, tearing...and by the end of it all, lone survivor Sarah is covered in enough blood to make Carrie look like an amateur.

The film was released in the UK in 2005 with a longer, different, slightly more downbeat ending. Check it out right here. Test audiences in the US preferred the idea that Sarah actually makes it out of the cave, but I wouldn't call it a happy ending by any stretch. While she may have eluded the physical dangers that brought down the rest of her group, any way you look at it it's obvious that Sarah is now completely 100% batshit insane. I dig a movie that has the balls to screw with our expectations like that, to make even the winner a loser; think Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Chris in Friday the 13th Part III. Sometimes making it out alive might not be the best option.

Hey! I finally picked a winner for the Film Club! Hooray for us all. I can't think of anything I didn't like about The Descent. We might just have a modern classic on our hands, kids. See? Maybe we should leave the house more often.

Here's the Film Club Coolies. Give them mad props, yo:
Mermaid Heather
7 Dollar Popcorn
The Horror Blog
Media Kitten
Minor Annoyance


Stacie Ponder said...

As always, gang, if you wrote about the movie on your own site post a link here and I'll add it to my post. Yay!

Heather Santrous said...

Nice pick for the club Stacie! I wasn't sure if you were going to link the ending to your post or not so I linked in into my review as well. When I wrote mine, yours hadn't been posted yet. I think I like your review better than mine but that is nothing new. If you like, you can read mine over at As always, thanks for the fun!

Goose said...

I too loved this flick. I was impressed with the art direction and the acting as well as the story ( or sometimes lack there of ).
I like caving. Now I am not sure I will ever want to go into a cave again. This was down right the creepiest cave movie I have ever had the pleasure to be freaked out by.
The "monsters" are sufficiently creepy and though no one tried to explain where they came from the film allow you to come up with you own conclusions. I like to think that they were once truely human but after a couple of centuries in the dark they adapted. (remenicent of an X-Files episode, "Detour"). But I digress.
I know that Juno didn't mean to do what she did, ( though what she did with Sarah's husband was bad it wasn't quite deserving of her end) but I was mildly amused by the way in which her punishment was dispatched.
I think the term "batshit insane" aptly describes Sarah at the end of the movie.
The running down dark caves that have wet floors made me more nervous for the girls than some of the monster scenes. Don't they know how dangerous that can be? Didn't they learn anything from Holly's accident? The leg thing made me cringe so intensely that my face hurt.
This is infact one movie that I will watch again. Hopefully the DVD will have the ALT ending as well.
On another note, while you prefer the comfort of your couch to watch these types of movies I enjoy the expreience of watching a movie in a dark theatre. Preferably the latest matinee, it usually has the fewest people. I find that Horror movies that you cannot fast forward or turn down can scare, frighted or just plain creep out better in the darkness of a movie theatre. I find that not so good movies can be made bareable and possibly enjoyable at the theatre.
Maybe if the genre permits going to the movies could become something you choose to do more often.
I enjoyed your review tremedously. Keep it up.

Unknown said...

Well, it does seem that I've finally participated in a Film Club event, at least in my own way.

I have to say though, and I said it over in my blog as well, I liked the original ending. The whole 6 go in, none come out means that history repeats. Every other group that made it into the cave didn't make it out and why should these six be any different?

You're right though, it was a very good movie, I just hope they don't try to make a cheesy sequel for it.

Anonymous said...

I'm in like Flynn.

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks for playing, gang...having chosen a winner for the Club, I can finally walk with my head held high.

GOOSE: I agree that it was a wise move not to explain the monsters anymore than they did. Given the pace of the film once things took that really bad turn, an clunky attempt at explanation would have gunked up the works big time. Unless the "discovery process" is integral to the plot, like say it is in The Thing or Day of the Dead, it's usually best to let the audience think a little.

My immediate reaction to Sarah killing Juno was extreme disappointment, not because I was terribly fond of Juno, but because it seemed overly ruthless. Had Sarah killed Juno outright rather than resigning her to the terrible fate of being ripped apart. While it still seems pretty extreme, the more I thought about it and the more I talked about it, it made a little more sense, I suppose. I've come to peace with it, anyway. :D

Believe me, I LOVE going to the movies. The big reason why I tend not to go very often is that there's simply not many current films that I want to spend the $$ on. I agree, though, that the experience of seeing a horror film in a darkened theatre, all big and loud, is one of life's great pleasures. I'm all about the matinees so I don't have to put up with obnoxious audiences. When I saw Scream the first time, though, it was with a very vocal, very rowdy crowd...and it was a blast. People weren't having their own conversations- people were totally into the movie, yelling and screaming. Man, that was fun.

DREAMROT: I too like the original ending...I love the idea of there being this space that's been an unmarked deathpit for hundreds of years. It's like a roach motel!

There IS a sequel in the works, though I haven't found any word as to what it will entail. Neil Marshall isn't directing it, but he's come up with the story and will be overseeing the film. It could simly be ANOTHER group of people heading into the cave (which would be silly, most likely), or maybe they'll go the Aliens route and have people head into the cave to eradicate the threat. Hmm. Time will tell, but this movie certainly doesn't NEED a sequel.

You guys rock!

Heather Santrous said...

I too love going to the movies but being in college it is sometimes hard to get anyone to go with me that is into horror movies. I agree also that this one doesn't need a sequel and I'm a little disappointed that there will be one. Actually I'm usually more surprised when there isn't a sequel to a movie that has become popular anymore.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, there is nothing wrong being left wanting more. My favorite part of the movie is Sarah just completely snapping. That always freaks me out. She goes from being sad and scared to totally gone. I also liked the look in the English Teacher's eyes when Juno did her in. Cool part. Thanks for getting me to go to the movie, good times.

Anonymous said...

First of all, let me say i'm so happy that I blundered onto your two blogs.

I thought The Descent was great too!
One of the few times I actually saw a movie in the theater-- because I'm lame! (Meaning it takes me forever to get around to seeing a movie-- usually I buy it on DVD-- and I STILL don't get to watching it! I'm lame AND I suck! But, i digress...)
Now i want to check out Neil Marshall's DOG SOLDIERS, a werewolf movie, which is supposed to be pretty good, too.

Yeah, it was cool seeing a horror film that wasn't trying to be
cool via homages or camp or whatever. Instead, it focused on being simply: a well made horror movie! Amazing!

Yeah, Juno's end seems unjustified, but i guess that's the true horror part of it, what this whole situation does to these people.

Considering that Marshall utilized a number of "jumpy-scares", they weren't cheap ones, i thought.
Like, when Sarah is looking out the window of the cabin window at night-- you're waiting for something to happen... and then Marshall rewards your expectations but in a completely different direction.

The comment you made about the friends acting as friends is accurate-- I didn't think of it in those terms, but I thought it was neat that he invested the time to let us know these characters as characters, versus various "types": ie. the comedian, the bitch, etc. Plus, besides personalities, the prologue gives us some excellent character history for context, too.

Sarah's blue, blue eyes against the red, red of the blood all over her face was GREAT.
And that final shot of her in the truck made me think of TCM, too-- man, this ain't a happy ending at all. Now she's screwed by grief AND guilt!

Great movie!

And very slowly, Ms. Ponder, I'm discovering your stick figure cartoon posts-- also terrific!


Anonymous said...

I really wanted to like this movie, since Dog Soldiers was very tightly scripted and generally awesome. But in general, I found it derivative and boring, and the characters were constantly doing things that made no sense. Caver friends of mine also commented on obvious bloopers in that part of the movie, but that's normal for people who have above-average knowledge of a subject covered in a movie. I wrote a fairly lengthy review on my blog. All in all, I think it was decent, but it's not great by any measure.

Amanda By Night said...

I had totally forgot that this movie was directed by the guy who did Dog Soliders. I was lucky enough to catch that one in the theater too. Amazing and super fun movie!

We (David and myself) loved the Descent. It's exactly the type of horror movie I've been longing for. Stacie, your phrase slow burn aptly captures the first half and although not much time was taken on establishing the Sarah's sadness, she totally captured that feeling of loss. There were moments I almost lost it myself (however I'm close to that subject myself). I thought all the characters were wonderful, but I especially loved Beth(? The teacher, was that her name). She was just full of presence. Oh yeah, and Juno was, like, the most beautiful woman I've EVER seen. I dug her even though she was obviously the most promblematic to the group.

What I liked most about the character of Juno was that she was flawed, had made some SERIOUS mistakes but wasn't unlikable (sp?). It's hard to make a movie with a character like that and probably even harder for the actress to pull it off. She made some SERIOUS and unforgivable mistakes but she was HUMAN. I could relate to it and I liked her. However, I think she kind of got what she deserved. Maybe not as harsh, but she really is the reason Sarah was left with nothing (the affair, lying about the cave), so I understand why Sarah wanted her to suffer a bit before the end.

Serious atmosphere, perfect performances, stellar direction and an amazing story made this one of my favorite horror movies in a long, long time.

I have to ask, did anyone notice how the exterior locale looked eerily like Just Before Dawn?

Amanda By Night

Anonymous said...

I liked this movie a lot. It had some good gore moments, but i think what made it stand out was the fast pace of the film, once stuff started happening in the cave. I also liked the fact that all the lead charaters were female, for some reason i think a mixed cast would've ruined the film [like last year's The Cave from Sony Entertainment]. I need to check out the UK ending maybe they'll include it when the movie comes out on DVD.

SikeChick said...

A sequel! Nooooooooo!!!! Man, they just can't leave well enough alone. This was the first movie I've gone to see in a very long time that I LOVED! I was skeptical at first, especially when I heard initial comments about the gore. It was a bit nasty, but it's so damn dark, I hardly noticed. Well, that and watching a good chunk from between my fingers. I was actually creeped out which is something I haven't experienced from a (newer) horror film in ages, and being in a theatre with only two other people didn't help much. I am so glad I decided not to let that whole sunny day and Snakes on a Plane thing get to me (although I totally plan to see that movie) and headed down the theatre.

Can't wait to get home and check out the alternate ending. I guess I will have to Netflix Dog Soldiers now if it's on par with this one.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read such a positive review of this; when it first came out all I heard was bad things, so I avoided it. When I found out it was directed by the same guy who directed Dog Soldiers, I decided to pick it up, and was pleasantly surprised by how nice of a film it was. Tight, atmospheric, creepy as hell; you're definitely correct in that it feels a lot like it was made a few decades ago, stylistically.

In an interesting related item though, I was pointed to this H.P. Lovecraft story. I'd be curious to know if Marshall took some influence from it. :)

Anonymous said...

Yay, I am completely and utterly in love with this movie, depressing as it is, and always happy to see such a good review for it.

Re: Creature origins - Neil Marshall has said in interviews that the creatures were cavemen who stayed down there in the cave, but somehow the population survived and evolved into the crawlers. Remember the cave painting Beth found? Yeah.

I like that they didn't say it, but left the appropriate clues. I always find it nice when a movie lets the audience figure out this stuff on thier own.

TheIrreverentCouponer said...

Mwah ha ha, roach motel. I think I love this blog. I can't wait to read all the reviews & comments on all the movies I love!