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The Descent: Celebrating the best horror film of the last 10 years

April 8, 2015

Descent movie poster  .

The Descent is the best horror film of the last 10 years. It is an urgent and bloody masterpiece that revolves around six women battling caves, crawlers and the past. I’ve been championing it for ten years and my soul was crushed (not really) when Cabin in the Woods was voted the best horror film of the last ten years by our readers. It belongs in the pantheon of great horror alongside Jaws (my favorite film) and Alien (Listen to our pod about the Alien series) because of the sheer economy and wonderful violence of it all. It is a fully fleshed out horror yarn that rips flesh and allows the characters to whoop some creature butt.  

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Descent blood gif

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Director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Game of Thrones, Doomsday) is a maestro of mayhem who keeps his films moving briskly and expertly. He understands urgency and the need to keep moving forward. If you stop you die, and the ladies in The Descent have no choice but to keep moving. He directed a beautifully layered horror film that juggles, claustrophobia, monster mayhem and urgency. If you listen to the commentary you realize that it wasn’t a fluke. It is a carefully crafted movie that was thought out on every level and achieves the “pure cinema” label. This film is so good that notorious horror movie hater Roger Ebert gave it four stars and exulted it virtues.

“The Descent” — what a great title. This British horror-thriller recalls grueling, adrenaline-pumping classics like “Deliverance,” “Jaws,” “Alien” and “Dead Calm.” It’s that good. Finally, a scary movie with teeth, not just blood and entrails — a savage and gripping piece of work that jangles your nerves without leaving your brain hanging. And so, for a change, you emerge feeling energized and exhilarated rather than enervated, or merely queasy.  This is the fresh, exciting summer movie I’ve been wanting for months. Or for years, it seems.

The Descent earns its scares because it doesn’t force them. So many horror films don’t earn their scares because they don’t take the time to build suspense, character and an original world. The Descent slowly introduces you to the characters, pushes them to extremes and then takes them to hell. The actresses do a great job of being believable, tough and three-dimensional.  The movie passes my horror test because years after I watched it I still remembered the character’s names. Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (Myanna Buring) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) lack backstories (no big deal) yet still manage to have their own distinct personalities. Juno has always been my favorite because she wasn’t a bad guy but she definitely was a jerk.

Descent actor gif

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Have you heard of the horror movie “final girl” phrase? In films like Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre there is always one girl left alive. In The Descent I call it the “final woman.” They are badass warriors who much like Ripley in Alien come across as layered humans. It is rare in horror to have fully formed characters. So much of the horror world is made up of archetypes, it is a breath of fresh air when you get three-dimensional human beings battling cave dwelling carnivores. In the making of documentary Marshall calls his layered character approach the “flaky pastry principle. The beauty of The Descent is that after the character introductions and claustrophobic spelunking we are introduced to original horror monsters.  Marshall had this to say about his crawlers:

“they had to be something that could get the women, something human, but not quite”. The crawlers were depicted as cavemen who never left the caves and evolved in the dark. The director included mothers and children in the colony of creatures, defining his vision, “It is a colony and I thought that was far more believable than making them the classic monsters. If they had been all male, it would have made no sense, so I wanted to create a more realistic context for them. I wanted to have this very feral, very primal species living underground, but I wanted to make them human. I didn’t want to make them aliens because humans are the scariest things.”

Descent monster intro gif

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What makes these creatures scary is that they are acting on instinct. There is no lame back story (I did learn on the commentary they named one Steve) or motives. They are human enough to keep the fights even and this allows the brawls to be barn burners. The stage direction was limited as Marshall told the actor in the creature suit to “go for the neck,” then he told his actress “don’t let it get your neck.” The simplicity kept it believable and raw. These confrontations do not seem rehearsed and they play like a classic predator/prey hunt. The coolest thing that Neil Marshall did was wait to show the actresses the creatures until the initial introduction. The reaction was fear and the phrase “they scared the living daylights out of me” was heard multiple times. These monsters were so well conceived they were ranked #6 between the Wolf Man and the The Thing Alien on Complex’s 50 greatest monsters article. The Descent’s Effects Designer Paul Hyett proclaimed his love for the practical effects of The Thing on the making of documentary. You could see the joy in his eyes as he talked about the gore, exploding prosthetics and gallons of blood. The practical creature effects are timeless because they will not age or become outdated (Think Nosferatu. Always great). I love how each monster had their own personality and a lot of credit is due to the actors who brought the latex to life.

 

Descent blood

 Meet Scar. He is like the jerky “Biff” of the Descent world.

The Descent builds to a beautifully brutal climax that features my favorite shot in all of horror. It is a gangster moment that happens before the two women vs. three creature fight. It is stuff of horror lover dreams and the climax is a mixture of eye-gouging gore, feral fighting and practical lighting. The two women cannot stay still and that adds more drama to the fight. They don’t back down and move forward into oblivion with gusto.

descnet final fight

You almost feel bad for the cave-dwellers….especially the one on the right

The Descent is one of my favorite horror films and I like that is has collected a big following. Quality has been rewarded and proves that Neil Marshal’s five P (Preparation prevents piss poor performance) style works. I love that Pinewood studio sets filled in for the North Carolina mountains and the budget was so small that sets had to constantly be reconfigured. It is a film that was made with a small budget and lots of love. It is an innovators dream that took quality to another level. Watch The Descent. Never go spelunking in foreign cave systems. Appreciate the wonderful work of Neil Marshall.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2015 3:34 am

    The Decent was the only movie to scare the crap out of me since Alien, in my defense I was 6 when I saw Alien.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      December 31, 2015 9:15 am

      Definitely got me feeling “jumpy.” lol
      But more fun jumpy than terrified…”fun scares.”

  2. August 16, 2015 11:16 pm

    I’m a little mind blown reading this. I watched The Descent during a run of numerous other modern horror movies and at the time, my reaction was to mentally shelve it with the many other mediocre films I had seen. I never knew it had this kind of solid critical reception and appreciation. The movie wasn’t memorable enough for me to conjure up much of an opinion now but I remember that it did make me feel claustrophobic but that was totally burst once I saw the silly monsters. It didn’t really work for me overall but it’s fascinating to see that it worked for so many others. I feel like horror movies are the most divisive genre.

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