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From Under A Rock: The Descent

November 5, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
The Descent
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From Under A Rock: The Descent  


Well I thought we’d get to more movies in October, but I (Michael) have been bad about keeping up with this column. In a few weeks, we’ll be taking a hiatus, but for now, let’s get to this week’s movie, that I only saw myself for the first time a few weeks ago, but loved so much about it that I wanted to discuss it with Aaron.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last time Aaron chose The Wicker Man. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him The Descent.

The Descent
Released: July 8th, 2005 (U.K.)
Written and Directed by: Neil Marshall
Shauna Macdonald as Sarah Carter
Natalie Mendoza as Juno Kaplan
Alex Reid as Elizabeth “Beth” O’Brien
MyAnna Buring as Samantha “Sam” Vernet
Saskia Mulder as Rebecca Vernet
Nora-Jane Noone as Holly

Michael Ornelas: I watched this as part of my “31 in 31” binge, where I watch 31 horror movies in 31 days in October (life got in the way, but I still made it to 24, so it’s still pretty decent).

Aaron Hubbard: I made it to 28, so I win! (Or possibly, lose.) Michael wouldn’t shut up about this movie for a couple of days… and with good reason!

Didn’t Expect Vampires
Michael: I watched this movie cold, which is how I prefer to ingest my horror. From the mere age of the film, I knew that there was some sort of creature, but I still knew little about it. It was exhilarating watching the women go into this cave and deal with tight spaces and interpersonal issues alone…but then they start appearing and it doesn’t let up. The creatures in this film are not to be messed with, as they thin the herd almost immediately, and it’s perfect. The scares are exactly what they need to be, and vampires are the perfect metaphor for the characters’ other problems (which we’ll get to) in the movie sucking the life out of the ladies.

Aaron: I’m not sure if they exactly qualify as vampires, but that’s not a bad description. Honestly, I think this movie deserves so much credit for this creature design. Yes, they look like white Smeagols, but that isn’t exactly tired territory in the horror genre. They are both frighteningly inhuman and unmistakably humanoid, which I find to be the best monsters. There’s nothing scarier than monstrous humans, and these primal beasts that have evolved to live and hunt in the dark are terrifying and will stick in my brain for a long, long time.

Michael: They are also aggressive, which matters a lot in horror. A lot of horror monsters go the route of the slow, brooding, stalking creature/killer/whatever, and while that has its place (especially depending on what the movie is trying to actually say), it’s always actually scarier when our protagonists have to run like their actual lives depended on it. These things have one of the best monster intro scenes that I can think of because they come out in numbers after the first one is spotted and they wreck shop. It’s so effective.

Claustrophobia Incarnate
Aaron: Sometimes a setting makes all the difference. Initially, I had some trouble getting into the movie, but once I realized the spelunking wasn’t just a part of the movie and instead the main plot of the film, I started to really get invested. Cave diving is not something I’d like to do, and this certainly didn’t change my mind. Once they are lost and have no way to turn back, the tension of the whole film ramps up considerably. I loved the scene where they were trying to figure out how to cross the huge chasm. Honestly, I would have been fine just watching these women try to get out of this situation, as I’m sure someone could make a compelling story out of that. But then we got the monsters, and this went from merely interesting to just flat out awesome horror.

Michael: It’s not a secret that I love Alien, which is claustrophobic horror as well, but this movie takes the literal interpretation of claustrophobia and makes it a huge character in and of itself. The moment when Sarah is trapped (which you can see in the clip above) is terrifying and highlights the real fears any of us would have in the same situation, as it’s probably the scariest thing that could happen to real cave spelunkers without entering the realm of fiction. It’s also great metaphorically because there’s a bit going on beneath the surface with Sarah, specifically regarding her relationship with Juno, and she feels trapped by it. So it makes sense for the scene that she’s having a hard time escaping being crushed with the literal way forward is to go to Juno, who (it’s implied) had an affair with Sarah’s late husband.

Aaron: It’s interesting that you brought up Alien: I watched a video recently from CineFix where they did a “Top 5 Horror Movies in a World Where the Actual Top 5 Horror Movies Don’t Exist” list (goofy, I know), and they basically said in a world without Alien, this was the best substitute. Which really got me thinking, and I have to agree that it really captures the vibe of that movie without feeling a rip-off or even an homage. They’re just similarly structured and well made. And again, I don’t want to go near a cave in my life now. Thanks, movie.

The Ending
Michael: When I watched this movie, I had one big problem with it that I want to get into. I hate that Juno, later into the movie, is treated like an alternate antagonist to these creatures. As you saw in the clip in the section above, she accidentally kills one of the other characters in a heightened moment of adrenaline, and then leaves her to die alone. Yeah, that’s shitty, but it was clearly an accident and she didn’t know if she was even safe to be with her friend in her final moments. Turns out, she survived, is found by Sarah, and tells her Juno tried to kill her. No context of “accidentally” and then the movie closes out with Sarah fucking over Juno, and leaving her to die from an onslaught of these creatures. And regardless of subtext, I don’t like that the presentation of this moment felt triumphant, as though the audience is supposed to cheer the fact that Juno is “getting her comeuppance” for what was clearly an accident.

Aaron: And here is where we differ, since I don’t think this is really a “cheer worthy” moment or framed as such. To me, a lot of the movie is about Sarah slowly going insane. That’s what the business with the birthday cake dream is all about, and that starts long before the main plot gets going. So Sarah isn’t exactly a hero so much as somebody who survives by becoming as monstrous as the creatures she’s been fighting. Which I find pretty fascinating. I also think it’s clear that Sarah is the one who gets the comeuppance, in both the U.S. ending and the original U.K. ending, which you saw but I did not.

Michael: While I don’t disagree about Sarah’s arc, or even the plot point so much, it was the way it was filmed that left a bad taste in my mouth. As well as the scene between Sarah and Beth (the one who Juno left for dead) because it wasn’t even subtle at just painting Juno to be a villain. I guess we saw the presentation differently, but I feel the same points could have been delivered more clearly. I still think it’s a killer movie, but that business with the handling of Juno toward the end bothered me, even if I understand and appreciate the way it affects the handling of Sarah.

Aaron: The Descent was a really fun experience for me, a claustrophobic horror film with new monsters and naturalistic performances. It bungles a few things but the whole package is so effective it’s hard to come away caring.


Michael: While I do have my issues with the stuff leading up to the ending, this is still an incredible horror film. It’s legitimately terrifying and manages to do so much with so little. If you haven’t seen it, you really should seek it out.


Aaron: Great pick here. Probably going to watch this a few more times in the future.

Michael: Yeah same. I love the atmosphere so much.

What’s your favorite U.K. horror film?

Next Column:

Aaron: I’m in the mood for something stupid, and related to something we both enjoy.
Michael: I’m excited and terrified at the same time…

Aaron: It’s one of the worst films ever made but it’s hilarious.

What is the worst film adaptation of a game or toy?

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The 411
The Descent is one of the better horror movies of the early 2000s. It is claustrophobic for its runtime, but then spikes in sheer terror with a frightening creature unlike any we've seen. This gets a strong recommendation from both of us in spite of minor gripes.