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Feb 11

The Descent (2005)

Have you ever wondered what George Cukor’s The Women (1939) would be like if it were remade into a horror film? Well, look no further than 2005’s The Descent, a film that bears much resemblance to Cukor’s film in that both feature an all-female cast dealing with mostly male-related difficulties. Of course, the former tries to tickle your funny bone, whereas the other tries to scare you witless. Directed by Neil Marshall, this British film is a brutish one. It tells the story of six daredevils who, in search of their next adrenaline rush, have traveled to North Carolina to explore the caves that course below the Appalachian Mountains. At first unaware that one of their own has selected an unmapped system as the site of their next adventure, the group ends up lost deep inside the bowels of the earth and threatened by cave-dwelling creatures.

The Descent features no male characters, with the exception of a short-lived appearance by one in the prologue. Although there are no human males in the film, the majority of the subterranean creatures appear male-like. At first terrified by their assailants, the women eventually find their bearings, band together, and turn against them. In this way, The Descent is permeated by an implied, but never explicit sense of “female power.” Indeed, you might find yourself humming Helen Reddy’s I am Woman as the women fight back, even if the film wouldn’t stoop so low as to play it on the soundtrack. Still, it is odd to feel invigorated and empowered at the same time as feeling scared stiff and hopeless. Perhaps, then, the male-populated, labyrinthine caves in which the female protagonists are trapped are meant to symbolize the maze of patriarchal nonsense that women must traverse daily in order to be recognized as equals.

I am not a fan of horror films. Many of them amount to cinematic swill. They are often poorly constructed and typically struggle to elicit well-deserved frights within audiences. As in any genre, however, the genre itself is rarely to blame; instead, the execution is at fault. I believe (at least in theory) that any premise could become the subject of a great movie, provided it is adapted properly. (Yes, that includes a live-action adaptation of Yogi Bear. Did not a bunch of toys just earn an Oscar nomination for best picture?) Having said this, The Descent does not let its audience down. Indeed, this film exemplifies the best of what the horror genre can offer. While its premise is not as ingenious as, say, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the film takes full advantage of its straightforward plot and single setting. Indeed, an otherwise simple premise is so brilliantly executed that it becomes inspired.

From a technical standpoint, there are many elegant visuals on display. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy rises to the challenge of working within a dark, constricted setting by ingeniously utilizing lighting in ways that effectively texture the film. Conferring an ominous tone onto the journey, light, emanating from a variety of sources, alternates between white and more off-putting colors like green, purple, and red. Also, dabs of light are often surrounded by pitch darkness, which helps foster a sense of claustrophobia.

The Descent is not for the faint of heart, amounting to 99 uncomfortable minutes of squirming and repeated cries for mommy. The fact that I was terrified out of my wits while watching it on my magnormous 22-inch television is a credit to its effectiveness. I must embarrass myself further by confessing that one scene in particular haunted my dreams for well too many nights. At one point during the film, the women are submerged in total darkness. We hear one of them reaching around for her video camera. As soon as she finds it, she enables the night-vision feature. Spinning around, she focuses on one of her friends. It is then that we are treated to the very first close-up shot of exactly what the women are up against. The composition of the scene is unsettling: there stands the creature, leering motionless over the poor, unsuspecting girl. It is a momentary and almost static scene, but its impact is lasting. Indeed, shivers riddle my body just writing about it.

Some may consider The Descent’s ending slightly manipulative. Nonetheless, it serves to highlight one of the most prominent emotions felt by the characters during their ordeal: despair. Just in case we hadn’t felt it during the beginning and middle acts of the film, the ending makes sure we do. Indeed, the ending packs so much of an emotional wallop that American audiences were spared from it during the film’s original theatrical release. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), we are treated to the original ending on the uncut DVD. Should you find yourself brave enough to watch The Descent, one word of advice: when night falls and slumber beckons, think plenty of happy thoughts before crawling into bed and diving into the cavernous depths of your subconscious.

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