It is surprising that caves have not been used more as a location for horror films. They lend themselves perfectly to scaring the living daylights out of an audience. Claustrophobic, remote, cold, inhospitable; an unexplored world that, best of all, exists in complete darkness. And we’re not talking about the phony darkness you find in haunted houses or in the woods late at night, but a darkness so complete that when light is artificially introduced, it seems utterly unwelcome and temporary.

It is into this environment that eight girls venture, led by their fearless leader Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza). The purpose of the trip is to help Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) get over a recent bereavement with some old fashioned bonding-through-adventure. Of course, they get lost and trapped and things only get worse from there. Could there be something else down there in the dark with them – surely not?

Fans of Marshall’s first film, Dog Soldiers, may be surprised by the tone of his latest work. Dog Soldiers, a fantastic werewolf shoot em’ up, was tremendous entertainment, but ultimately fairly lightweight. The Descent has many of the elements of its predecessor (there’s plenty of action, gore, death and fighting), but the all female cast bring a sensitivity, anxiety and realism to the story that enables the real scares to become manifest in the final twenty minutes.

The Descent seeks to be genuinely frightening and succeeds in this where so many recent films have failed. An uncomfortable and tense atmosphere is nurtured due largely to the location, the quality of the acting, but mostly the skill of director Neil Marshall. Marshall rejects the self-knowing horror humour that has developed in recent years since the likes of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and goes for a more serious approach.

Furthermore, he knows that cheap shocks and mood music are just a cop out. The Descent thrives because the atmosphere builds slowly, taking the audience deeper in to the heart of the film just as the girls go deeper in to the network of caves. This only works because of the strength of the acting and characters that Marshall has created. No horror film can ever rely on character development to deliver the scares it needs, but here there is enough depth for the audience to empathise, and actually understand the decisions they make.

This really becomes important as the film develops and the psychological effects on the characters are revealed. Not to labour the point, but once again, the location is crucial. The caves Marshall creates become so divorced from the real world that it becomes understandable that normal thinking should be abandoned. Paranoia, anger and violence are a natural response to the intense claustrophobia, disorientating darkness and isolation the girls are forced to endure, particularly as they recognise that their chance of escape is vanishing, and even more so when they see their friends start dying. Watching each character struggle to maintain their sanity in the most stressful of situations, and eventually fail, is where the movie really comes into its own.

It’s pretty hard to find something new to do in the horror genre now, especially when looking for a conclusion. Almost every possible twist has already been explored and turned into cliché or parody, but Marshall manages to bring his film to a climax in a way that is unexpected, unsettling, but ultimately rewarding.

This is a really well executed production that actually delivers on the potential of its original premise. It’s a real challenge to frighten audiences who have seen it all, but The Descent succeeds where so many others have failed. Terror, panic and fear return to the screen, and it feels good.

The Descent (2005)
Dir. Neil Marshall
Stars: MyAnna Buring, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Saskia Mulder, Alex Reid
Genre: Horror

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