The Descent is an odd duck of a film. On the one hand, it is very effective, jumping me out of my seat a couple of times and generally making me anxious. It has a profound sense of atmosphere and has a couple of moments that will stick with me.
On the other hand, it's not particularly original. It cribs from a few different movies, and rarely comes up with an original shot or concept. It's sense of dread and foreboding is abandoned about halfway into the film, and it's also guilty of the greatest of horror movie sins - musical stings.
The story is deliberately thin and rather ambiguous, and I really don't want to ruin much of it for any first time viewers. Suffice to say, there is a cave, and some women go into it. This constitutes much of the beginning of the film, and it's generally fantastic. The cinematography and lighting is uniformly excellent, and creates a sense of claustrophobia I don't think I've felt in a movie before. I've also rarely been as uneasy as when one woman takes a tumble and gets injured in a particularly brutal way, requiring the others to administer impromptu medical treatment. Combine that with a later injury involving a rope, and I've not winced at a movie this much since I watched Zodiac
, another powerfully vicious and uncompromising movie.
The issues I have with The Descent stem mostly from the second half, in which the sense of foreboding and dread is abandoned in favor of blood, guts, and jump scares. Now, admittedly, there are a couple jump scares at the beginning of the film, but I can accept that. You have to start the movie a certain way, get the audience on their toes. Fine. And I'll give you a mulligan on one more jump scare, just for shits and giggles. But another? And another? And another?
The last one wasn't even that scary. It was incredibly predictable and followed standard horror movie cliche to the letter.
Not only that, but after the first few, the jump scares are accompanied by my biggest pet peeve - musical stings. I fucking hate
musical stings in horror movies, whether they're triggered at the moment of the jump or are tinkly piano or tinny strings leading up to a character looking around a corner. It's lazy, it's boring, and worst of all, it ruins the scare.
You can see them coming a mile away when you do this, filmmakers! How have you not realized this by now?!
But the rest of the film is mercifully competent. The performances are generally well-done, and there's a reveal around the halfway mark that is well-executed, even if it is
followed by a musical sting. And the ending? Startlingly powerful and ambiguous for a horror film, and it makes you look at the rest of the movie in a whole new light. Still, there's a lot of things that could have been done differently, and more effectively. Playing on our more primal fears, of small spaces and wide open spaces, of being trapped or buried alive, and most of all our fear of the dark, these are all fine ideas. But once we know what's in the dark, once we can put a face and a name and an idea to the thing in the dark, it becomes far less scary. Maybe this would have ruined some of the symbolism of the film, of which there is more than one might think. But it would have helped the movie as a whole.
There's a few subtle references to other horror classics in The Descent, which I appreciated. Numerous shots of climbing equipment being holstered brings back memories of Sam Raimi
films. Music extremely reminiscent of Ennio Morricone
's score for John Carpenter's The Thing
kicks in a couple of times, which made me quite happy. But while The Descent does it's best often enough to be good, it fails to reach the level of Carpenter's opus: the classics that do things differently than their peers and predecessors and deviate from established formula.
If there's one thing to take away from this review, though, it's this: The Descent tries.
That's more than can be said for most.