A caving expedition goes horribly wrong, as the explorers become trapped and ultimately pursued by a strange breed of predators.
Prior to this, my knowledge of Neil Marshall’s work extends purely to his stellar directing work on two action-heavy ‘Game of Thrones’ episodes where his superb direction brought two of the novel’s finest set pieces brilliantly to life. Skipping past his debut ‘Dog Soldiers’ (which I will watch at some stage!), I decided to watch ‘The Descent’, his film about a potholing adventure gone drastically wrong. The film follows six women who become trapped after entering an unmapped cave system, with the organiser neglecting to tell the rest of the group where they are going. This happens almost at the beginning of the film after a couple of establishing scenes which introduce the characters and reveal a couple of details which will become important later on.
‘The Descent’ is gripping from the outset and unbearably claustrophobic at times, with Marshall’s camera putting you right in amongst the action and you truly live and breathe every moment alongside the characters. The film is expertly directed and Marshall uses the lack of light to great effect without compromising the ability of the audience to follow the narrative, with the darkness serving to ramp up the intensity. The film is a gripping survival thriller, with every moment fraught with tension and every movement framed as if something is about to go wrong. The cast is relatively unknown which serves to make the characters feel more real, and combined with the naturalistic dialogue, the film almost has a documentary feel to the early periods as the group first go underground. The film also features an incredibly tight script with barely a moment of action or dialogue wasted – every shot or piece of information will play a part at some point further down the line. Whilst the film is primarily a survival thriller, there are secondary themes that escalate the tension and animosity between the group as secrets come to light and character’s actions are impacted by events that have happened in the past, and this adds an intriguing overlay to the action.
As the film moves towards the final act it moves away from the carefully built up suspense to something more manic and feral as the group discover they aren’t alone in the caves. In my recent review for ‘Crimson Peak’ I talked about how the addition of a supernatural element felt unnecessary and that the film would have worked just as well without it. I feel slightly different about ‘The Descent’, and whilst I feel the film could have been purely an effective survival thriller, the creatures here feel so earthy and warped that it leads to the madness of the final half hour and intensifies the character’s will to survive. The film moves past being a puzzle to solve as the characters try to navigate an escape, instead becoming a desperate scramble to stay alive and this makes for a thrilling conclusion. It also leads to one of the most gutpunching moments I’ve seen on screen recently in a scene that epitomises the desperation of the situation.
I believe the ending was changed for US audiences but I much prefer it here, although I’ve little interest in watching the sequel (which wasn’t directed by Marshall). ‘The Descent’ isn’t scary because it makes you jump or because the creatures are particularly frightening, but it’s an effective horror film because of its ruthlessness and nimble direction that ramps up the feeling of dread throughout.
Directed By: Neil Marshall
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, MyAnna Buring, Saskia Mulder and Nora-Jane Noone