The Descent Is Terrifying Because It’s Believable
BY OLIVIA ARMSTRONG
What if you were trapped underground and the only way out was further down?
When you sit to watch a horror movie, you’re immediately and implicitly asked to suspend your disbelief: Vengeful ghosts, masked monsters dwelling in the shadows, knife-wielding stalkers wiping out summer camps ... submitting to an unlikely concept is an expected and necessary part of the process.
It’s the exaggerated make-believe that allows us to shake the frights after the credits roll — so it feels rare to encounter a horror movie that grounds itself in reality to scare. Neil Marshall’s The Descent, about a cave expedition gone devastatingly awry, does just that.
Marshall, whose TV credits include Game of Thrones (“Blackwater”; “The Watchers on the Wall”) and Westworld (“The Stray”), wrote and directed the 2005 horror-thriller that, despite having a quiet box office run, quickly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon thanks to its buzzworthy cast of relative unknowns, arthouse direction and unnervingly realistic premise.
After Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband in an accident, she agrees to tag along on a caving expedition to help clear her head. It’s only when the group’s path out of the caves collapses and they happen upon a strange species of violent creatures, does Sarah realize the worst is yet to come.
If the villains mentioned give you pause about the plot’s plausibility, Marshall’s depiction of an underground enemy — part-human, part-bat, blind, starving — carries a real, menacing weight. This army of ravenous evil, however, isn’t the antagonist in this tale. Rather, it’s nature.
To watch the film progress is to surrender to the uncertainty of what lies beneath. The encroaching caverns, narrowness of the crawl-spaces and dwindling oxygen supply serve as persistent obstacles and threats. But for Sarah and her fellow hikers, the only way out is to move deeper down the death trap; through catacombs that look and feel like hell, past the skulls and the bloody pools of those who never made it out.
In Sarah, there’s an adrenaline-fueled resilience accelerated by her recent trauma, which she uses to ever-so-quietly try and make it to the literal light at the end of the tunnel. The fear that keeps the viewer guessing, however, isn’t if she’s capable of saving herself and her fellow hikers, but if the unforgiving labyrinth will let her.
Olivia Armstrong has irked many an internet surfer via Decider, Tribeca Film, HuffPo and Jezebel. The movie she first remembers watching is The Swan Princess. The second is The Shining.