31 days of horror movies: The Descent and the horrors of spelunking

The Descent - Courtesy Shudder
The Descent - Courtesy Shudder /

The Descent is one of those movies where your enjoyment of it will be proportional to how much you don’t know before watching.

So, don’t let anybody tell you anything about the story before you plunk down to see this 2000s classic.

Here’s what’s safe and all that you really need: A group of thrill-seeking women go spelunking in North Carolina to strengthen their bonds and then struggle to escape a cave system that they discover is inhabited.

That’s it. Okay, for those of you who’ve watched and have loved this movie by director Neil Marshall, follow me back into the great dark.

The Descent grew its mythos and legend after release

Since it’s become one of the landmark horror movies of the 2000s, the mythos surrounding The Descent has only grown. The events during its filming and when it was released seeming to just build up its current peak status.

For example, we all know that it’s now a classic because it was successful in both critical reviews and at the box office. It had almost across the board positive reviews and grossed USD $57.1 million on a BP3.5 million budget.

But during its release in July of 2005, the London bombings happened in the same month and this of course affected the box office performance of The Descent because, well, nobody wanted to go see a horror movie involving underground creatures while real people had been just recently trapped in the subways.

Wearing his influences on his sleeve, Marshall has openly talked to the press in interviews about his inspirations for the movie. They include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Thing, Deliverance, plus Italian horror films by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.

The hallucinatory effects of being underground plus the dynamic of the characters being all women was riffed on in one of the poster designs, clearly a homage to Salvador Dali’s “In Voluptas Mors.”

How the UK ending was deemed too dark for US audiences and so it was released in North America with around one minute cut from the ending.

Also, how Marshall and crew went all Ridley Scott, keeping the crawler design a secret from the actors until they were already shooting, so that he could get a more organic fear reaction.

Speaking of the crawler creature design. That was designed by renowned special fx prosthetics creator Paul Hyett, and they decided that it should evolve from being more Gollum-like with pearlescent skin into something filthier and darker, since the on-cam effect was too bright for the darkened set.

The Descent combined a relatively simple plot with well-executed horror tropes

The story itself is pretty simple and thank God for that.

After cutting his teeth on the cult werewolf hit Dog Soldiers, Marshall decided to tackle a claustrophobic ride in to survival horror.

Specifically, a group of six women trying to escape trauma and strengthen their bonds by going spelunking, what should be a fun activity until they’re trapped underground and hunted by mutated cave dwellers who’ve evolved unseen under the Appalachias of North Carolina to be able to hunt and live in the subterranean environment.

Again the story is pretty straightforward. In the opening scenes, Sarah and her friends are white water rafting and it’s hinted that Sarah’s best friend Juno and Sarah’s husband Paul are having an unconfirmed fling.

It’s later revealed that they were actually having a sustained and very real love affair, since Juno had a necklace from Paul with the pendant engraved with one of Paul’s emo sayings.

In any case, Sarah’s daughter and husband die in a car accident on the way home from said the river rafting. Only Sarah survives and she’s understandably tormented afterwards, experiencing hallucinations, needing medications, and overall just the whole PTSD truck.

After a year, Juno, the alpha thrill seeker among the group, organizes a spelunking activity. However, being cocky and confident, she’s secretly cut off their entrance and escape route so they are forced to bond over the dangers of going through the cave system.

What’s more, the route she’s chosen isn’t the well-mapped Boreman Caverns, rather she’s chosen that they traverse one system that’s almost completely uncharted sans planned or obvious exit. So, Juno is basically a craphat of a friend and she’s taken them all into a hazardous journey without a heads up.

Problem for the women: the crawlers, claustrophobia, and the less than average experience of the group collectively hinder them from escape.

The Descent
The Descent – Courtesy Shudder /

The Descent continues to be a top cult hit of survival horror

What I love about it is how, as you watch the women panic and get picked off one by one by each other or the crawlers, you can’t help but steadily notice that they don’t really seem to be getting anywhere nearer to an exit.

In fact, they are likely just descending deeper into the subterranean abyss. It’s that kind of literal level of events that dovetails nicely with their metaphorical tumble into each other’s darkest corners, as well as their own.

The performances by the actors are well done, too, making us care for each of them even as they’re devoured or injured.

At the core of it is how Sarah discovers that her alleged best friend Juno was really stabbing her in the back all along. I mean, the girl was sleeping with her husband, evidenced by the necklace she found in Beth’s hands and still pretending to be her best friend. With friends like those the creatures seem like a better and more straightforward threat.

Upon discovering this, this cements Sarah’s decision to cripple Juno with her pickaxe, leaving her to the untender mercies of the crawlers.

That’s traumatic act in itself and this sends Sarah spiraling even deeper into her hallucinatory psychosis. Even more PTSD!

Remember how in the American cut, the alternate ending sees Sarah escaping from the cave and driving away? I liked the UK version better.

In that version, Sarah fantasizes her daughter holding a birthday cake full of candles, signaling to the viewer that all is well and that she’s escaped the caves. But when we pull back the light of the candles is just her torch.

She is still trapped in the dark of the caves. The locating trills and screams of the crawlers are closing in. Nobody has escaped. There is no hope of an exit.

One of the best achievement of this movie for me is to make me doubt the conviction that no such creatures as the crawlers might exist. Who knows what the vast underground of the Appalachian mountains hides?

I loved The Descent for its merciless and breakneck storytelling. That’s why it’s one of my top horror movies.

And hey the sequel wasn’t too shabby, either.

You can watch The Descent on Shudder.

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