British horror has not had much to celebrate in the last 20 years and so when a new British horror comes on the market to overwhelmingly good reviews it is a significant moment. The Descent has been widely hailed as the best British horror film since Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Neil Marshall's previous foray into horror came in his 2002 film Dog Soldiers, a film I found silly and not scary The Descent couldn't be more different and is a vivid, extremely tense and at times terrifying film.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and unique aspects of this film is the fact that the entire cast is female - a 21st century The Thing for women. This is interesting in itself, but also in terms of the horror movie genre, which has for years and at times correctly been attacked for its misogyny. Many writers have argued that the modern horror film is a reaction to the rise of feminism and is very reactionary in its themes: women who don't fit into the virgin/wife/mother role decreed by patriarchal society pay a usually pretty painful cost. Anyway, I digress, but by creating a horror film cast of fully-realised and intriguing female characters, Neil Marshall goes a long way to refuting this charge against the horror genre and he should be thanked for doing so. One character in particular is pretty balls out, if you will forgive the term, and reminded me of Ripley in her outlook and reaction to adversity.
The Descent is part environmental horror and part monster horror and it succeeds at both, though to differing degrees. For me the setting was the real monster of the film and far and away the most terrifying 'character'. The film focuses on the aforementioned group of girls who happen to be out of bounds enthusiasts and seem to think potholing is a good idea. Now, I have always been dead against this type of activity and this film has put the final nail in the coffin of any possibility that I will go into any uncharted, unlit cave. The scenes of the girls making their way through tunnels so small they have to crawl through with their helmets scraping the roof are nausea inducing.
This film is remarkably dark and I mean that literally - there are a number of scenes where the only lighting is the small helmet torches the girls have and at times all you can see is a single stream of torch light. This lighting coupled with the horrendously claustrophobic nature of the wet, dank, dripping cave is extremely effective. Using this setting to its full potential, Marshall creates an extremely tense and edgy atmosphere - and this is before the introduction of the monsters. This is even more extraordinary when you consider that the cave is not real and is in fact a mock up made at Pinewood studios.
The next aspect of the film which merits discussion is the monsters - obviously crucial in a monster film. I will start by saying the monsters are largely very successful and I screamed in a way I have not screamed in years at the first proper reveal of these creatures. In the first few hectic scenes, when these creatures first make an appearance they are genuinely terrifying. They are also very realistic and the way they move in the cave with such speed and efficiency is really creepy. These monsters are almost perfect in every single way - but I think therein lies a small problem in this film. Marshall, much like in his earlier film Dog Soldiers, is clearly and understandably in love with his horrific creations and as a result I felt they were given too much exposure. By the end of the film the fear they created at the start had begun to dissipate as they appeared in more and more scenes. That said, this is a small complaint in an extremely effective film and it is well worth your time to seek The Descent out.
One final thought - if one of your friends ever says "without risk there is no adventure", cut them loose.