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The 365 Best Films of the 2000s

Heroes of the Zeroes: The Descent

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“The Descent”
Rated R
2005

A brutal, bone-crunching creature feature with marvelous subtext, Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” nightmarishly played out like an earthen black-box horror show.

In this 2005 film (released stateside in 2006) — Marshall’s breakthrough after “Dog Soldiers” — a sextet of female friends goes spelunking after a tragedy ripples through their social circle. Getting lost is their smallest worry, as bloodthirsty creatures — which have adapted frighteningly well to cave dwelling — stalk them.

What’s meant to become a claimant cave discovery — and, thus, reclamation of their friendship — instead becomes a death spiral. Bones don’t break, they jut. Lighting is all phosphorous flares, dimming flashlights and glowsticks. And the sound of the creatures’ gutturally clucking jaws creates instantaneous wincing. Tension is pitched at such a primal level that, at times, it’s barely bearable.

That’s because Marshall delivers what amounts to a feature-length exploitation of viewer phobias — distressingly claustrophobic and shot so vertiginously that it feels as though you’re dangling in the cave with the women.

The generously gelatinous gore isn’t without metaphorical purpose either. As the cave gets wormier and wetter, tighter and more terrifying, it feels like a womb thick with amniotic fluid. And the environment replicates their womanhood in a manner fraught with psychological interpretations.

Although Marshall’s attempt to justify the U.S. ending is admirable, the unrated, original ending is the only way to go — providing a chilling bookend to a motif and suggesting that what seems like cerulean-tinged peace is actually the solitary solace of madness.

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13 Responses to “Heroes of the Zeroes: The Descent”

  1. [...] arty to settle for home-invasion scares a la “The Strangers” and too laughably literal for “The Descent’s” unsettling uterine subtext, all that’s left in “Silent House” is an impressive technical [...]

  2. [...] talk about the last decade of horror films. There were high points — “The Ring” and “The Descent” come to mind — but there’s also been a long line of bad and/or timid flicks that watered [...]

  3. [...] (“The Descent,” “Doomsday”) specializes in affecting, entertaining gorefests, and this film is no [...]

  4. Nick Rogers says:

    Joe: True, but the American theatrical ending doesn’t make it explicit that she’s actually stuck in the cave. It’s not altogether unsatisfying that she’s be forever haunted by Juno – who admittedly did some very bad things before, and in, that cave – but the way the intended ending obliterates perception, and hope, is masterful. As to the question of watching it on a laptop, I think it certainly would increase claustrophobia. On a TV, you’ve got illuminated empty space around you. If you’re huddled up, say, in bed, and in the dark, the laptop is all you see.

  5. Joe Shearer says:

    {MORE SPOILERS}I watched the Unrated DVD, and the ending in that one was she escaped, got to the car and started driving off. She saw Juno’s ghost/dead body and crashed the car. When she awoke, she was still in the cave.

    What I took from that ending wasn’t that she didn’t physically escape(with that awesome birth metaphor shot), but that emotionally and spiritually she will forever be stuck in the cave with them, and with the ghost of Juno, who she doomed before escaping. That to me was the whole awesomeness of the film, that she escaped, but she also didn’t.

    And Jason, your comment on watching "The Descent" on a laptop brings to mind an interesting phenomena for people who decry seeing movies on a smaller screen. What if, as in the case with this film, seeing it on a laptop screen actually makes it MORE claustrophobic?

  6. Nick Rogers says:

    John: That’s the GREAT ending, and the only acceptable conclusion. In the American ending (SPOILER), she actually escapes. My insides don’t generally go wormy during horror films either, but this one always does the trick. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading!

  7. John says:

    Hey Nick,

    Good review. I’m commenting because I watched this film years ago, alone, at 2AM, on my laptop, with headphones, did I mention alone? Engulfed in the claustrophobia of the film… This is maybe the only film, if it’s ever on HBO, or Starz, I won’t go near it. I won’t change it to that channel for a second. it’s just chilling. I don’t even know if i’d ever call horror films "scary," or making me have fear, but it definitely made me tense and claustrophobic and whatever else you want to call it.

    But, anyway, I’m commenting because I watched The Descent years ago, and I was not aware that there is more than one ending. I watched it in the US, on DVD. I’m hoping you can tell me whether I watched the good ending or not.

    SPOILERS COMING UP:

    The ending I watched, the last remaining woman in the cave, she finally escapes the cave, as I recall, and is running down the street, maybe yelling or help, happy to have escaped, but then it turns out she’s hallucinating, and she’s really still inside the cave, deep down, with the creatures all around her. Which ending was this?

  8. [...] nothing silly in “May’s” chilling final image. Like “The Descent,” it’s the ultimate abandonment of tough reality for the simple solace of [...]

  9. [...] 2008’s “Doomsday” works fewer nerves than “The Descent,” it’s fine to pig out on greasy, juicy bangers and mash like this. Marshall heaps helpings of [...]

  10. Joe Shearer says:

    Yeah…I caught the other one you’re talking about (it also begins with "D," so we’ll be seeing it soon) on a Sunday morning by myself. Absolutely batsh*t crazy and awesome.

  11. Nick Rogers says:

    Thanks, Joe! Yeah, there are a handful of straight-up horror films on the list, but this one jumps out to me as the finest of the lot as well. (I rarely can get lost in a horror movie like I do with this one.) And yes, I love Neil Marshall, too. There’s another film of his coming up soon.

  12. Joe Shearer says:

    I’ve been telling people for the past 3 or 4 years this is the best horror film of the decade. Your analysis of it here was spot-on, Nick. Absolutely captures what I felt in words I never was able to fully articulate. I was absolutely disgusted with this film, in the way you should be with a great horror film. It’s not a good-time slasher flick. It’s a true horror film–disturbing, claustrophobic, dank, and depressing, and brutal. Neil Marshall is a genius.