The Duality Of "The Descent"
Movie review by Alan Green
August 5, 2006
In the poster for the movie "The Descent" (which is based on a photograph by Philippe Halsman in collaboration with Salvador Dali) we see six women whose bodies form a skull. The skull can be interpreted to mean death, so the relationship between these women must also represent the death of something. Here, I think it's honesty, or being true to yourself and others--as when we descend into duplicity. While these women cling to each other for support, this intimacy is the source of their pain because each deceives the others and themselves. All the women, except one, have their heads bowed and face hidden--suggesting shame in who they are. The woman whose face can be seen is screaming, possibly because (although she does turn her face as far away from us and her skullmates as possible) she is still facing us and cannot hide her duplicity and is crying out in shame (or horror of her relationship with the others).
This poster encapsulates the themes of "The Descent"; what we truly are is hidden beneath the surface and, because we are not true to ourselves, our relationship with others is duplicitous and creates a cycle of destruction. This is played out nicely after our six women go down into the cave where they grapple not only with fanged flesh-eating albino freaks called 'Crawlers', but their own true natures, and their betrayals of each other and themselves, when they are forced to make horrific choices as they fight for survival.
While "The Descent" is about the dichotomy of human nature, the movie itself is also split into two distinct halves. In the first half the suspense builds quickly after the women enter the cave and we find ourselves floating along with them in subterranean blackness. The only light comes from the lamps on their helmets, and watching these white spots dance in the dark quickly disorients the audience and we're left unsure how far away objects are or in which direction things are moving--a fine soup for horror-movie creepiness. Character builds quickly as well. Writer-Director Neil Marshall never stops for long expository dialogue, preferring to expose traits by immediately putting the women in danger when one of two known exits from the cave collapses. This would not normally present a problem except, because of a certain lack of full disclosure, the women find they are not where they were told they would be and must now ad lib their way out of an uncharted cave. This sets the stage for an animosity that, as the situation gets worse, builds until it reaches a psychological tautness (and some pretty serious betrayal) not usually found in gory horror flicks.
One of the most suspenseful sequences comes when our spelunkers must cross a ravine. It's necessary for one of them to free climb across a rock ceiling in order to secure a line to the other side so the others can come across. Here are these women, deep underground, in the dark, lost, with limited battery power for their lights and no extra food or water. It was at this point I noted how this story could pretty much stand on its own without the introduction of Crawlers or any other horror movie monsters--it was that good. However, instead of building on this foundation, the bottom drops out and drama and character are replaced with a superficial joltfest that quickly becomes tiresome. The second half of "The Descent", while nicely done and quickly paced, is little more than standard B-movie fare and since there is nothing left for the women to accomplish except survive and get out of the cave, the story has no place to go and the energy cannot be sustained. The Crawlers attack, the women defend. It's at this point that this movie flip-flops from highly suspenseful nail biter with believable characters to shock-shlock horror with over the top cardboard characters--not bad, but an unfortunate change in personality.
Why Marshall made this choice I can't figure. Not only is a compelling psychological drama glossed over in favor of gorefest, the gore itself seems to have been shied away from (perhaps the director's cut DVD will deliver the goods). There are a couple nicely setup situations that could have yielded much more hardcore horror if Marshall had committed to them. Considering how carefully crafted the characters are in the first half of the story, it would seem natural to continue to fully explore their changing relationships and the horror of how they survive or die. Marshall does not abandon this subplot but he doesn't delve into it either, preferring instead to skim its surface while dedicating most of his energy to producing a typical quickcut frightfest in the second half of the story. What we're left with is a horror movie that is afraid of its own shadow. "The Descent" doesn't build upon the characters it establishes, and doesn't fully explore the potential horror of the situations it creates, earning it the status of 'Near Miss'. This doesn't mean "The Descent" is a failure, only that it does not reach its potential. Still, this isn't a bad thing. If the bar weren't set so high by the first half of "The Descent", the second half of the movie wouldn't be so lightweight by comparison. Descent Part 1 is psychologically complex and silky-smooth, Descent Part 2 is unrelenting and paper-thin.
"The Descent" opened in England in 2005 and that version has a different ending than the one which is showing in the United States. The last ten minutes of the British version are available at Youtube. I think it's far better than what's playing in U.S. theaters. I don't know why but Americans need an upbeat ending, so I don't blame Marshall for editing out the British ending before distributing the movie here.
If you're a fan of horror you don't need me to tell you this is a must see. The buzz on the picture is off the chart. Even though it's a near miss, "The Descent" will probably be this year's best horror movie.