Six attractive women are terrorized and hunted down by an evil force. It sounds like the set-up for roughly half of all horror films ever made. But in The Descent, a location switch recontextualizes the gaggle of female victims. They enter an unexplored cave in the Appalachian Mountains; they’ve abandoned men (only one appears in the film, during a brief backstory) and created a female-only “space.” Their solidarity is threatened by poor planning, cave-ins, and underground creatures who look like the result of cross-breeding between vampires and the Flukeman character from The X-Files. At least the women fend for themselves.
The idea of a deadly confined space is nothing new; Descent‘s ads play up its connection to Alien, while conspicuously avoiding any mention of last summer’s inventively titled The Cave. But to his credit, writer-director Neil Marshall uses the setting to ground his film’s more outlandish horrors in more recognizable fears, of small spaces, untamed nature, and the severe injuries that can result.
Three of the women on this trip are reuniting after a family tragedy changed Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) life. She’s haunted but game for a new start, and her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) is the group’s gung-ho leader. Apart from Juno’s even more gung-ho sidekick Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), the rest of the women are more or less interchangeable.
Still, this cave full of scared but strong women makes for a smooth transition from creepiness into full-blown fright, because they start out, as Juno says, exploring and “discovering” something together. It’s especially sad, then, when discovery gives way to human bickering, which in turn gives way to running, screaming, and fighting as the group encounters a race of vicious humanoid predators. Here Marshall relies a little too heavily on jump-scare pop-outs, although some of them are effective. One, shot through a character’s video camera and therefore bringing to mind the real-life immediacy of similar moments in The Blair Witch Project and Signs, gave me a bigger jolt than I’ve experienced from a horror picture in months. Marshall (Dog Soldiers) knows his way around nasty B-movie thrills.
But the film is better at those thrills than at creating memorable characters and sociological observations. The plunge into hell is handled with smashing freakiness, but the women’s conflicts trickle off unevenly rather than expanding on or framing the visual shocks. The primary conflict, between Sarah and Juno, is subtle but not particularly intelligent. That is, the implications of betrayal in their backstory make some late dramatic gestures seem histrionic and overdetermined.
The women of The Descent are self-reliant, but, like many self-reliant women in horror movies, they also flip over into hysteria quickly and predictably. The Descent isn’t exactly sexist; it’s too commendably unwilling to objectify its protagonists. In fact, its presentation of six women with various degrees of competency is more “realistic” than the traditional action/horror model of the single female victim-turned-ass-kicker (perfected in Aliens). The crawly cave-beasts keep popping up in sudden soundtrack blasts, but Marshall’s half-baked ideas about betrayal and woman’s capacity for savagery are simplistic and pretentious.
The Descent — Theatrical Trailer