While built on mostly borrowed ideas, The Descent is certainly one of the tightest, best-edited, and most atmospheric horror-thrillers of the year.
As three close friends into extreme sports, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), and Beth (Alex Reid), seemed inseparable. After an accident kills Sarah’s husband and daughter, Juno quietly leaves while Beth stays to console Sarah. One year later, Juno returns to reunite the team along with a few additional friends for a new challenge; a cave descent into uncharted territory. Juno tells Sarah it’s both a way to make up for leaving and to help her move past tragedy, but the term “tragedy” is only hours away from being completely redefined as the six descend into the darkness…
Pitch black, claustrophobic, alone, and something out to get you; these were the themes that made the original Alien so hard to resist and so frightening at the same time. The Descent does an excellent job of reinventing these themes and editing them together to get the right reaction at the right time, and for those who look just a little closer, just a bit of something more going on. For fans of occasional thrillers who prefer their scary films well rooted in the believable before adding a fantastic element or two, The Descent is exactly the horror film you’ve been waiting for.
What the horror purists won’t like is the predictability of it all. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all wrong to say, “Hey, what if Gollum from The Lord of the Rings was real and a bunch of cave explorers accidentally ran into him while looking for a way out?” No motion capture here, however; these things are gruesome up close and all the scarier for it. And no “ring” either. It’s fight or flight when push comes to shove, and its hard to run when you can’t see where you’re going and you don’t know which way leads out.
Sadly, the ending leaves a bit to be desired, and one of the controversies with the American release was the “altered” ending from the original British release. While not a complete waste of time as a whole, it reeks of last summers’ High Tension “lack of making any real sense” ending and serves only as a last, cheap thrill for what was previously not the kind of movie that has to rely upon such theatrics. The Descent builds an atmosphere of fear, locks you in to sweat it out, then sets monsters loose upon you before showing you the way out; just ignore the last three seconds of the film and enjoy.
(a three skull out of four recommendation)