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The Descent is the riveting and harrowing story of several athletic young sportswomen (of the extreme variety), led by the confident Juno (Natalie Mendoza) who unwisely choose to explore a cave in my neck of the woods, in backwoods North Carolina. It’s an unexplored cave, but Juno is arrogant. So much so that she hasn’t even brought along her maps or books…a fact which she hides from her gung-ho buddies, including Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), who has recently survived a personal tragedy. Juno also hasn’t filed a descent plan with local authorities…so one really knows where the women have gone. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, well, it is.
What terrors befall this group of unfortunate young women in that dark, increasingly claustrophobic cave may remind you a bit of John Boorman’s devastating, high-impact white-water rafting effort Deliverance (1972), which The Descent cleverly and quickly references in its first moments. Deliverance was another story about vacationers reckoning with their own arrogance as well as hostile locals. Only here the locals are monstrous darkness-dwellers: sub-human things that lurk and leap in the darkest corners of these long unexplored caverns. And…there may be hundreds of them.
Written and directed with exceptional skill by Neill Marshall, The Descent rarely missteps. The film’s early moments chart the nature of Sarah’s excruciating personal pain, and forecast her pain to come in that dead-end cave. There’s an early sequence set in an hospital that proceeds with breathless, accelerating fear as Sarah runs and runs down a seemingly endless corridors, the lights going out all around her, plunging her into quadrant after quadrant of impenetrable darkness. This is a perfect foreshadowing of that cavern in North Carolina, but here it’s a both a technological cave of “fear” and an internal one too, the dark cave of the mind during a human crisis.
As you might guess, confined spaces and darkness play a big role in this film’s sub-textual gestalt, and Marshall makes all the pertinent connections. If you’ve ever been afraid of the dark (and who hasn’t?) you’ll be unnerved from the film’s very first sequence and then held in terror’s tight, vise-like grip to the last, breathless apex.