Six friends (Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, MyAnna Buring, Saskia Mulder, Alex Reid and Nora-Jane Noone) find themselves at the end of their tether when a spelunking holiday takes a rappellent turn.
This 2005 British classic immediately inverts the traditional role for women in horror by making its characters supremely resourceful and extremely tough, before sending them down a cave and watching them literally go to pieces. From the brutal opening to the brief blast of banjo music on the car radio, there is an urgent sense of unsafety, as though anything stalagmite happen. That early nod to Deliverance sets the stage for the ensuing breed of action, horror and survival, closer to Alien or Predator than the genre’s usual women-as-bait scenarios.
Neil Marshall provides all the backstory we need to ground the emotional maze of trauma and betrayal, and to establish the character dynamics in a way that enhances what might otherwise become narrative potholes. Nor does he dwell on the group’s baggage, his brief setup providing just enough psychological wriggle room to leave its secrets lurking in the shadows. Where the current crop of fright flicks tend to wear their messaging as head-torches, The Descent leads with its Lucio Fulci-inspired horror and lets its subtext creep in from the corners of the caves.
Expertly shot across 21 cave sets at Pinewood, The Descent recalls 2004’s Creep in its old-school claustrophobia and the twisted logic of its subterranean creature reveal. Through modern eyes the femmesploitation thriller serves as an allegory for the internet troll, the pale cave-dwellers attacking strong women who threaten their underground existence. Shades of infidelity and homoeroticism cloud the system of blind tunnels and friendship dead-ends, while the Ripley-esque protagonist unearths the maternal strength buried under thick layers of dirt, lies and blood.
Over 100 breathless minutes, Marshall builds the tension as if slowly eking out climbing rope, leaving us hanging on dramatic cliffs and visual references to Carrie and Apocalypse Now. The result is ingenious, intrepid and downright indescent.