As a caveat, I have been watching horror films for almost as long as I can remember. I love monsters; I love the dark; I love to get creeped out by things I cannot fathom. My favourites are legion: Hellraiser, The Omen, The Shining, Shaun of the Dead, Alien, Psycho, Horror of Dracula, The Thing… So I decided to limit it to horror films I’ve seen in the past few years that scared the living shit out of me. Two sprang to mind: 1408 (the only horror film to date that made me cry) and the scariest film I’ve seen since I sat down to watch something burst out of John Hurt’s chest, The Descent.
Like Garth Ennis, I think Neil Marshall was put on this planet with the express purpose of entertaining me. That, or I’m a sick, sick man who happens to find eviscerations bloody hilarious (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen his early film Dog Soldiers – the only film where I saw intestines spewing forth from someone in the first ten minutes, and they survived to close to the end of the film!). Perhaps it’s a mix of both.
A few years ago, on a whim on a sunny Saturday morning, I went to the movies with fellow contributors Andy Burns and JP Fallavollita to see a film I’d never even heard of: The Descent. I had no idea what the film was about. It was just a last-minute response to an email (or perhaps a text – I don’t recall), and I’m so very glad I decided to go. (Editor’s Note: We actually ran into one another on a street corner).
Firstly, this film throws genre on its head in a totally satisfying way: the cast is all women. This is not seen in horror beyond the odd assinine film involving biker chicks or half-naked nuns. Women are so often subjugated to the most demeaning of atrocities in horror films, and it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that many women avoid them for this very reason. Their characters are puerile, intolerable, vapid, or vindictive and evil. There are obvious exceptions (Ripley in Alien springs to mind), but let’s face it: women usually end up maimed, raped, and who knows what else in the genre; it’s one of the main reasons I’ve avoided so many horror films for so many years. I hold out for the interesting ones.
The dynamics between these rather interesting characters, and a totally satisfying dynamic between its protagonists that is never explicitly discussed, but the viewer is fully aware of its implications, drive this piece. In many ways, The Descent is reminiscent of a female Deliverance: a group of friends head off on a wilderness adventure (spelunking not canoeing) and things go terribly wrong. Both films explore the nature of people and their capacity for atrocity and unspeakable behaviour, but The Descent throws in some monsters.
And they’re scary as hell.
The sounds of these things in the depths of the earth still brings a chill to my spine. It’s something like a creaking door and a growling animal. They also can’t be seen; these women, and the creatures that hunt them, are in the dark. Also, to call the film claustrophobic is a gross mistake – I would rather extend that description to include the words crushing, heavy, and inescapable. Hope, like any exit, is entirely absent. The film preys on fundamental human fears: the dark, no escape, no hope, no friends, no family. Everything goes to hell, and one’s stomach is tight from start to finish. Bones burst; blades cut; skulls smash – it’s brutality and fear made manifest in the scariest film I’ve seen in years.
Two last comments: 1. watch the UK version; the US version’s ending, while serviceable, is nowhere near as horrific; 2. watch it with the lights off.