(Very minor spoilers follow)
I don’t watch loads of horror movies. It’s not that I have anything against them; if anything, they’re unfairly maligned a lot of the time. (When was the last time a horror movie won an Oscar? The Silence of the Lambs? Does that even count?)
Now, I’ve managed to do two in a row, though The Descent is different to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in every single way other than their great twist endings…
My initial impression was that The Descent has some elements that are typical and owe themselves to by-numbers horror (and zombie) movies and some that aren’t. For anyone who doesn’t know, and/or can’t bring themselves to watch the trailer, The Descent follows six women who go spelunking (a word that is a lot less amusing an hour into the film) and discover more than they bargain for—namely, a group of sub-human flesh-eating cave-dwellers. Hilarity naturally ensues and it all ends with a warm, fuzzy happy ending.
Typically, the film opens with personal trauma. So many horror movies start with someone, usually the main female character, losing a kid, or husband, or whatever. This is to put them in a fragile mental state so that when things start going bump in the night, or the cave, their friends dismiss it as PTSD or “seeing things”. It’s also set way out in the dark, foreboding woods of the Appalachians… which makes sense. Both decisions, in fact, work for the film and it’s hard to begrudge them.
Atypically, the daring bunch of soon-to-be-dismembered friends are all female, and British women, at that (mostly). This immediately raises the question of whether The Descent will be more or less gore-porn-y? Your typical women in a horror (or more accurately, slasher) film comprise the good, sensible, sometimes “damaged” chick who survives, and the slutty one who dies because she has sex, plus the occasional nerdy one who works out what’s going wrong but also dies because she’s boring. Sitting down to watch The Descent, only an idiot wouldn’t immediately expect all these women will die horribly, but they still have their own characters beyond the normal lazy stereotypes. So is it exploitative? I’d say no, but Manohla Dargis disagreed and she knows a hell of a lot more about films than I do. What struck me, more than anything else, was how amazingly different it would be if it was all men trapped in the cave…
Which brings me onto another, tangential point—one’s expectations from horror movies. Is a film more or less scary if we come to watch it knowing it is a horror film, expecting to be scared?
There are moments in The Descent which are clearly foreshadowing what’s going to come – and not only in terms of dramatic irony, such as one of the team recounting all the ways you can die in a cave, but also in cinematic language. So, to find a way out of the cave, the leader of the group, June, holds a Zippo lighter up to see where the fresh air makes it flicker—you just know she’s going to light it up at one point and there’ll be a monster right in front of her waiting. Plus, there’s the fact they are using battery-powered equipment and flares: no need to explain where that’s going to go, dramatically. It’s a bit like when someone looks in a mirror in any horror movie, ever. Knowing moments like this are what make horror movies worth watching, and what make them interesting for the most part—even when we know we’re going to be scared, why is the film still so good doing so?
There’s nothing supernatural involved in this film—in fact it’s aaaaaalmost believable as a premise. The sheer immense size of the world means there are certainly cave systems that won’t have been charted, and if humans can adapt to live in the Sahara or in Siberia, why not in a cave system, with food and water readily available? People used to live in caves, after all.
The cave setting is bad enough for claustrophobes without knowing what lies below—not in a million fucking years would you get me down that hole. As for the creatures, who look almost identical to the Falmer for any Skyrim fans out there, they’re almost human, but not quite. Described as “cave men who never left the cave”, they’re effectively creepy for the first 45 minutes or hour of the film, but then are exposed a little too quickly for what they are. I’d have liked the director, Neil Marshall, to maybe keep them hidden in the darkness to menace the group for a little longer; at times the last half hour of the film has more in common with a zombie film than a horror, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s fucking tense. Whilst typing notes I could see my own sweat on my keyboard.