Jun 16 2010

The Descent

In the past, horror has been a genre I wasn’t fond of.  It just wasn’t a set of films I really had much desire to pursue.  But as I’ve begun to run out of truly great films in some of the other genres, I found that the gaps in my viewing such as horror and foreign films were able to provide me the most enjoyable new watching experiences.  This is primarily because I had previously avoided some classics.  The discovery of films like The Thing, The Mist, and Let the Right One In have been some of my favorites of the last couple years.  So when I heard The Descent often placed alongside these other movies in respected critics’ favorite foreign films, I knew I had to check it out.

For those unaware, The Descent is the 2005 horror film out of England written and directed by Neil Marshall.  It features what is essentially an all-female, all-British cast of adrenaline junkies who go spelunking in an uncharted set of caverns who find, to cop a cliché, more than they bargained for.  It’s a simple set-up and the plot stays simple throughout.  The leanness of the script is part of what makes it work so well.  It uses classic horror expediency to introduce its characters, using just a few lines of dialogue to really tell you exactly what each character is about before any of the action begins.  Instead of complex plotting it relies more on our central fears to execute its scenes of horror.  The scariest scenes rely on claustrophobia, fear of heights, or fear of the dark.  And one of the most effective screenwriting tactics, putting the characters in a place from the very beginning where they are truly trapped and there’s no way out.

These may seem like obvious tactics for a horror film, but the execution here is so excellent.  While certainly there’s a lot of geographical ground to cover, the script does not feel unlike the very common “entire episode trapped in an elevator, phone booth, apartment” type plot.  The movie takes place almost entirely in a cave.  And even though it’s a complex cave, that’s still all it is.  And yet, the screenwriters find plenty for the characters to do, and for them to be afraid of.  As with all isolating horror films (such as The Thing and The Mist), more horror is derived from the way humans can turn against each other or fail to cooperate properly than from the outside forces.  This is what can make horror truly interesting, a focus on the characters and their interactions, or lack thereof.  Splitting up the characters in the story has some interesting effects all its own.

The setting provides some really intriguing cinematographic opportunities.  Because there’s no sunlight in the caves, all the lights have to be motivated practically, either from flashlights or headlights or lanterns.  This allows the cinematographer to really paint the frame with light in a way that’s always intriguing and well composed.  The film also has a really interesting cast of almost a monochrome red, which is a welcome relief from the constant monochrome blue or the slightly less popular but simultaneously more irritating monochrome yellow.  The color scheme gives the film energy and frankly a violent feel that it might otherwise lack from the enclosed space.  Creative blocking of scenes as well as the use of various liquids also helps give it a really great atmosphere.

The Descent is a simple, well executed horror film that simply does its job and provides some great action.  It does complex things with its screenwriting and with its themes that many other horror films don’t manage, and it doesn’t shy away from much of anything.  Basically it’s a really good thrill ride for anyone with the strength of heart to endure it.  I highly recommend it if you like this style of film.

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