"The Descent" —A Review

41 Comments

Its an art one would think Hollywood seems to have forgotten.

The art of tapping into our basest, primal fears.

For the last few years, Hollywood has struggled with the horror genre—creating assembly-line, cliched gore-fests — all the time labouring under the assumption that the more blood, grizzly deaths, screams and busty soon-to-be-dead ladies in skimpy tops they can pack in 90 minutes, the more is the horror induced.

However the best horror movies are the ones that never fully articulate the object of fear, the ones that don’t tell you everything—-instead inviting you to read between the lines. Which is where the real horror lies.

Se7en” (1995) was a classic in this respect because of what it didn’t show. If the camera had focussed on the box rather than on Brad Pitt’s face, I wonder if “Se7en” would have been the modern classic it is considered to be. Similarly, “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) packed a punch because the horror was always through indirection: the jerky camera movements and the muffled sobs—– never is the object of fear ever shown on camera. The last scene of “The Blair Witch Project”, totally absent of any explicit violence, still chills you to the bone because of the anticipation of death that it implies. Similarly, the climax of “Se7en” grips your jugular because it shows you, sans any of the usual devices of a horror film, the face of true malevolence—an evil that spreads to anything that comes in contact with it.

To my list of favourite horror movies (which are by no means restricted to the two above mentioned films) I now add “The Descent” (technically not Hollywood though) —a testament to the fact that there are some who haven’t still forgotten how to spin a terrifying yarn. A story of six women who go spelunking (cave diving) and encounter unspeakable horrors in a dark cavern, “The Descent” plugs directly into our fear of closed spaces, of being buried alive, of being stuck tight in a pitch dark crevice and of being unable to breathe. Claustrophobic, dark and disturbingly violent, it is as much about the fear of the unknown as it is about the darkness that exists inside each of us.

The movie is not without its flaws—least of all being the changed ending Lions Gate (the movie’s producer for US) subject us to —an ending that dilutes the crackerjack effect of the director’s original denouement (the one that is in the British version). Even with that, “the Descent” is possibly the best horror movie of recent times in which the violence and gore is never allowed to suffuse the simple horror of normal people descending into the abyss of madness.

Thanks to “the Descent”, my faith in the ability of movie-makers to understand what constitutes horror has been restored.

At least till the arrival of Part II of the “Grudge”, Part III of “Saw” and the Part n of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” . (all of which are going to happen in the next few months)

Aah well.

[If you have seen the American version of ” The Descent”, here’s the original British ending. You don’t want to miss it]

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41 thoughts on “"The Descent" —A Review

  1. Good review – will try to see the movie.

    Yes, the best horror story I’ve read is “A Woman in Black” by Susan Hill. Lovely – no ghastly sights, no rattling chains and disemboweled heads – just an occassional sound of a horse cart, the sound of a rocking chair and a woman with a wasted face wearing black clothes.

    I finished the book at 2 am (I was in class 7), and I couldn’t sleep several nights – and when the milkman went past our house in his horse cart, I was screaming with fear.

    Nope, you’re right, the best horror is by indirection. Something Stephen King and most of Hollywood does not understand.

  2. I think it is typo, it is “Witch” in Blair Witch Project. I have seen only this film in your list and it was marvelous. One very important fear factor was the depiction of movie as based on real life – even DVD extras has this theme which made me fear even more even when movie was over. Only next day at Wikipedia did I realize that it was not based on real life event.

  3. @Sayon: Indeed they don’t.

    @Ashish: Thanks for pointing the typo out. Oh yes the “reality” thing was a landmark in movie promotion. They even got Discovery to do a “documentary” called the “Curse of the Blair Witch”: no wonder people thought the “footage” was real.

  4. Have not seen it yet, but the ending fiasco reminds of a Dutch film Spoorloos(The Vanishing) – a chilling understated horror gem. The Hollywood remake was a cop-out with a different ending — totally killed the film. If you haven’t seen it, give the original a shot. It can be netflixed.

  5. greatbong thanks a ton for the alternate brit ending. But texas massacare in your list, im surprised. And no mention of Ring-1. Even more surprised. And not a single word of the greatbong brand of humor/sarcasm in the whole freaking post. Am I dreaming?

  6. Agreed Greatbong. I don’t see how too much blood and puking (Hostel) is any where close to horror. When someone asks me which is the best horror and I say ‘Blair Witch Project’, they go wasn’t that a real story? Meaning, it is not horror because ghosts don’t exist. Duh!

    When do you think Bollywood filmmakers will make a good Horror movie?

  7. Bollywood can never gain the maturity level to go beyond the vengeful raped woman’s ghost’s revenge plot.

    I still think Gumnaam, Madhumati and Bees Saal Baad were the closest ones. Probably the movies being black and white/eastman added to the eerie effect.

    Also, I think Omen(the original) was one of the best horror movies ever made.
    About the Blair Witch Project, I was petrified by the end of the movie!! it actually took me some time for the significance of the ending to sink in.

  8. Bongji,
    I’ve seen the movie….. I was apprehensive at first ‘coz the plot summry pointed to a cliched mutated humans/babes in distress baseline. But I was pleasantly surprised at how “The Descent” actually turned out.

    Under extreme stress and duress the true nature of a person comes out….. when one is faced against an unseen danger, rather than closing the ranks we might be accosted by our own personal demons and fall to basic instinct to survive. The resulting lashing out (due to past grudges/suspicion/disagreements)might take down your own compatriots or tear the “fabric”. This movie is a good example of that….. the protagonist who has a painful past, axes to grind with her friends, issues with herself is an example of this “descent”. The movie name alludes not just literally to cave exploring, but to depths of insanity and animal nature.

    PS: (SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW: I dunno which changed ending you referred to here…. the one I saw had a most grim ending which sort of shakes your core as we were so far under the impression that everything would be A-OK for the protagonist. The ending I refer to is something like the ending of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where Jonathan Pryce *seemingly* escaped into the sunset with his woman after overcoming all adversities….. Or something like that character Bruno when he regresses into a comfy fantasy world of childhood (though he was hunted by the entire Red Army) in the episode “Pride and Exterem Prejudice” in Fredrick Forsythe’s “The Deceiver”)

    PPS: Check out “Dog Soldiers” and “The Toybox”…. and “Hostel” if you like gore (but this is a whole new experience).

  9. Hey GB…..completely agree with you on this one…..This fear of the unknown was also very well used in Kuberik’s The Shining (from Stephen King’s Novel)….but I guess Kids will always take the scariest roles….case in point the Omen series….Nothing scarier than a kid who wants to screw with your mind…wot say 🙂

  10. Nice review!
    While se7en has one of the best screenplay’s ever, I’m not so sure it could be clubbed under the horror movie genre. The movie was a bit more on the intellectual side- the shock effect is less fear and more cerebral. To understand how (pop)horror movies are written one can watch the first installment of the scream series – where jamie kennedy does the explaining behind the formula.

  11. @Dipanjan: Saw the English version. Will have to catch the Dutch one.

    @Jhantu: If I am being sarcastic always, doesnt that mean I am also getting predictable? Plus I am usually caustic about movies I dont like—-“the Descent” not being one of them. As to “Ring 1” —yes it too had a terrifying message (which is what made it frightening rather than the hairy girl)…..the only reason I didnt mention it was that this post was a review of “the Descent” rather than a discussion of my favourite horror movies (which may be the subject for a future post). As to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”while the original had a shock value, the later reincarnations (there have been almost 5 remakes/sequels) have had nothing new to offer except more and more sadism.

    @Aravind: When GB’s script, tentatively titled “Bhay” gets serious attention from Bollywood.

    @Ali: Omen yes. Totally agree. “Carrie” is also a favourite of mine.

    @The Wanderer: On these lines see the original B/W “Night of the Living Dead”. Its a classic. True classic. I think you are talking about the UK edition—the US version is different, more “feel good” type.

    @Mohib: Oh yes I did see it. Leaving aside the end (which I have to accept I didnt see coming) , the rest of the movie was an exercise in sadism and bloodletting which just doesn’t work for me. A little less shock and more plot development and “Saw” could have become another “Se7en”

    @//slash\: I would disagree. It is a horror movie—albeit a cerebral one. (the fear hits the brain) Which is what distinguishes “Se7en” from the teenager slasher genre (which I find more funny than horrifying)—the “Scream”s, the “Halloween”s and the “I know what you”s of the world.

  12. Nice review, will try and catch it. In Hindi horror, I think “Kaun” is pretty underappreciated. Urmila and Manoj Bajpai were very good in that…and the ending was a real twister. Remember it scaring the bejesus out of quite a few male friends of mine too!

  13. Greatbong, slightly off-topic – you should check out an Aussie movie called “Alexandra’s Project” (Rolf De Heer). Now that to me is a ‘scary’movie. No blood, no deaths, nothing. Pure psychological violence. It is a masterpiece.

    Kevin Spacey was chilling in Se7en. He made it better.

    Will check out The Descent.

    If you can find it, I also recommend another Aussie movie “The Interview” with Hugo Weaving. And we have filmmakers in India still turning out their KANKs, HAHKs and what have you.

  14. I am yet to check the film, but I agree that no movie can beat The Blair Witch Project when it comes to scaring the S*** outta you. The original Omen is one of my favs too. The new one looks pretty crappy, what with the dumb kid.

    Hindi movies again are the same ghisa pita – agreed. Madhumati I do like. Among the new ones I happen to like Naina a bit – yes, most would disagree. Even though it was a straight copy of MANY films it had its moments. The plot too was interesting. Strangely it had NO relief moments…yet, i kinda liked it. The WORST happens to be Darna Zaroori Hai. ugh!

    But frankly Hollywood produces more of such crap than Bollywood – any day.

  15. Arnab:

    Have you seen “Picnic at Hanging Rocks”? It’s an Australian movie about a group of schoolgirls who go out for a picnic and some of them don’t come back. There is absolutely no explanation for their disappearance (it’s supposed to be based on a true story) but the hint of menace throughout the film is truly chilling. I watched it when I was in college and it haunted me for days. Maybe it won’t have the same effect now. And the background score, especially the one played on the flute, is eerie. Not a true horror movie (I am not a big fan of them) but haunting all the same.

  16. Picnic @ Hanging Rock is very haunting. Loved the score also. They used to show it in Star Movies, & that’s where I first saw it. It was Peter Weir’s first calling card. Weir has some desi connectino since he was to have directed Depp Bhaiya in ‘Shantaram’.

    The original Dutch ‘Vanishing’ is the best scary movie that I have seen. Words fail me, since the basic premise (the killer’s motivation) was so awesome. I had seen the Kiefer Sutherland Hollywood version, by the same director (George Sluizer) first, & it was very lame. Wonder what happened to him since.

    Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” was another one. Saw it on TNT first & was quite scared that night. Jan De Bont (the ‘Speed’ guy) remade it in the late 90s & it sucked, since he had crammed it with fx.

    That said, I don’t mind my blood & guts. Halloween, Saw & Grudge were all very stimulating. The “Descent” director Neil Marshall’s previous movie “Dog Soldiers” (iMDB’s featured movie of the day) is supposed to be very very gory.

    GB, I was hoping for some opinions on the Ram Gopal Verma school of high-decibel horror movies. ‘Bhoot’ was a big disappointment.

    So what would be the best ‘cave’ movies of all time (ie. movies with crucial/extensive scenes in caves)? “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, “A Passage To India”, the original “Batman” come to mind, and looks like Descent is a contender also.

  17. Hey GB,
    Yes, i’ll try to see this movie as i haven’t seen a decent horror movie for a long time and DESCENT (minus the s) sounds decent at least!
    However, if you haven’t seen ‘Fallen’ starring Denzel Washington then do yourself a favour and rent it out some night and watch it (alone). It sent shivers down my spine throughtout the movie because it is quite good. My favorite scene is where ‘time is on my side’ is whistled by several people. Watch it.
    Of course, it is no VEErana or GUMNAAM but hey, hollywood doesn’e realize the simple horrors of life. Mainly, bad make up is more scary then special effects!!

  18. Sayon said

    “Nope, you’re right, the best horror is by indirection. Something Stephen King and most of Hollywood does not understand.”

    Just for my understanding, Sayon, have you read many Stephen King books? Or is it just a passing refrain to a so-called popular horror writer a la Dean Koontz?

    Think your view might change after reading King a bit more.

  19. Made it a point to watch the movie as soon as I read your review.Got the original UK version too.

    It surely will classify as one of the best horror movies ever made. I think “Requeim for a Dream” is also a pretty good horror movie. As with “Se7en”, I dont think a movie has to deal with the supernatural, et. al. to be classified as a horror movie.

  20. it seems the end was truly horrible leaving the horror at bay. the movie havent arrived on the desi landscape yet, so dont know how the rest was treated. but agreed with u on the fact that it’s the ‘invisible objects’ that actually induce the fear. and the classic ones are the ones that are able to create the atmosphere w/o the funny looking figures with ‘snake-like’ tongues, gory faces etc. ‘Blair witch..’ was really HAATKE from the horror genre.

    which one among our desi try-outs u rate the most?? our own Bhoot Gopal Bharma has a factory dedicated for researching on horror, it seems. i wish he reads ur blog and let his ‘bhoots’ rest in peace for a while!!

  21. @Enigma – ‘Requeim For A Dream’ a horror movie? You sure you remember correctly? Its about drug addiction, & a very good movie (Ellen Burstyn was brilliant – she got robbed of an Oscar). But not horror, surely?

  22. I completely agree with Udayan above when he says that the views of King haters may change if they read his novels and not just watch the subsequent movies based on them. He is a talented writer with more than fifty published works and some of his lesser known short-stories, as well as the novel Rage (which was banned for resulting in school shootings) have a horror that doesn’t live in your closet or under your bed but which survives in your heart no matter how much you try to get rid of it.

  23. @Udayan:

    “Just for my understanding, Sayon, have you read many Stephen King books? Or is it just a passing refrain to a so-called popular horror writer a la Dean Koontz?

    Think your view might change after reading King a bit more. ”

    Well, obviously you’re a King fan, so I won’t try to compete with you on the number of books I have read. However, I have read quite a few, right from his Richard Bachman days – including Carrie, The Running Man, The Green Mile, Four Past Midnight and Gerald’s Game. I don’t watch movies based on his books, because I don’t like his plots.

    I’m sure you like his books; no shame in that – but I find his style too reminiscent of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe – the horror is too forced – and does not vibe with my psyche.

    I do like – and obviously this is a personal matter – horror like that written by Susan Hill, who uses everyday things in a inimitable style to create the chill.

    So apologies if you feel I’m harsh on your favourite horror-meister, but to each his own poison, as I’ve said before.

    @SirPsycho – you’ve recommended “Rage” – will read before commenting.

  24. @SirPsycho – picked up Rage – I’d read it long back, in school, so I’d forgotten the name.

    Sorry, didn’t like it much. Couldn’t identify with any character, so couldn’t really feel the horror. Not my cup of tea.

    Of course, no criticism of those who enjoyed it. I’m sure you’d hate a lot of stuff I like.

  25. I don’t like horror movies.
    I find them too frightening.

    They belong to the category of Bibhatsa Rasa.

    For me, Scout and Jem (To Kill a Mockingbird) crossing the school yard at night with somebody trailing them was BAD!

    This could happen to any kid — returning home after dark and the lights go off. No descent into caves or psychopaths turned bible-scholars needed.

    The ‘fun’ of reading/watching horror movies is to let one’s brain invent the horror and the overwhelming RELIEF of knowing that it is all makebelief.

  26. @Sayon – Not really. You don’t have to identify with a character to feel horror. In my perspective, the horror comes not from identifying with a disturbed character but from acknowledging that such characters not only can but MUST exist in our society. The Columbine high school massacres of the world are much more horrifying than the spooky tales of ghosts, spirits and the like. A lot of King’s short-stories are less mainstream horror and more O’Henryian twist-in-the-tales.
    Quite frankly, I rarely bother with horror as a reading genre. American Psychos, Clockwork oranges, 1984s and Brave New worlds…these are my cups of tea (bhang actaully!) for the social terror they present.

  27. I am delighted that you approve of The Descent as well as I am really looking to watching it. Great positive response from most of the reviews and stuff..

    Looking forward to seeing this movie whenever I do finally manage to.

  28. ‘The Descent’ is awesome. Even the caves scenes before the arrival of the crawlers are way too scary. They are suffocating. You can literally imagine yourself stuck in the cave with no way out!

    I was never very fond of ‘The Grudge’ and ‘texas …’ but ‘The Ring’ remains one of my favorites.

  29. Horrors (and comedies) are prolly the toughtest genres to make movies in – good horrors, ie. The easiest genres are prolly the (melo)dramas. Now, regarding Blair Witch, yes, I like it, but prolly not that much. I also know people who find the whole concept, rather unfocussd. But the fact remains that BWP opened up a new genre by itself (of sorts).

    The one horror movie which really impressed me was “The Wicker Man”. If you haven’t watched it, please do. Oh, they’ve also made a new version with NIcholas Cage et al – though I doubt it’ll be as good as the original. “Rosemary’s baby” is another well made one. I especially liked the open ending. I also liked Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” – though it’d prolly be more of a thriller than a horror. Would say the same for “Req. for a dream” – the soundtrack and that one scene where they show the nerves on the arm – brilliant!

    The art of terrifying/shocking a mature audience who are well-aware of he fact that it’s all on a silver-screen…definitely not easy.

    Watched “Peeping Tom”?…a bit oldish actually.

  30. Yes, Wicker Man was very powerful, & the nudity didn’t harm it either. That & Christopher Lee gave that cheesy Hammer effect, which that haunting final scene utterly dispelled. Has a powerful sense of time & place. The New York Times had an article on the new one. its made by Neil LaBute & I have some respect for him as a filmmaker, so I am looking forward to that one. Peeping Tom – the movie that killed Michael Powell’s career. Like it more as an examination of the art & psychology of film making than as a straight out horror movie. Actually Brian De Palma’s “Raising Cain” which pays tribute/ borrows heavily from PT is a more scary movie IMHO.

  31. @SirPsycho: Yes sir – your cup of bhang. Fine with me.

    Two points – you do not identify with the kid who shoots up people – but with the victims. That is what sends the creeps up one’s spine. I cannot identify with US society in which the daily security is ocassionally broken by psychos. Here we don’t need psychos. Terrorism is too much of a reality – and while it is horrifying enough, it’s too real to make me enjoy the chills up my spine.

    Secondly – to me, books are a better medium for horror. The talent of the writer is more completely supplemented by the reader’s imagination. A movie has to show some things which the writer can leave the reader to supply.

    If you’ve seen “Random Harvest” – a different genre, I admit, the movie had to change the story a lot because the climax of the movie had to be different from that of the book. And that spoilt the movie in my opinion.

    Of course, in the hands of a good director, even a horror movie can be truly good – which is why I enjoy some of them, like “The Birds”, “Psycho”, “The Ring” and “Omen”.

  32. @Sayon – Truly said man, in the hands of an able director certain horrors can really take off. Love The Birds, The Ring (part two was kinda shit) and Omen. I like Psycho the novel more.

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