You'd think (hope?) that one of the 1000+ movies I saw during the 00's period of Horror Movie A Day would end up being my favorite horror film of the decade, but alas. While I have found (and previously written about) the gems I saw that I never would have seen without my constant search for daily entries, the only two that came close were Inside and Orphan, both of which I would have seen anyway, as Inside was a Screamfest entry (even when HMAD ends I'll still be attending the majority of this LA-based fest) and Orphan stars Vera Farmiga, whom I'd watch read a phone book (or even less, as was the case of her thankless role in Safe House).
Nope, my top film of the 2000s was The Descent, which I first saw at a radio screening a couple days before its US release back in the summer of 2006, more than six months before I started making this a daily habit. I can't even remember if I had seen director Neil Marshall's previous film Dog Soldiers yet - I am pretty sure I was inspired to do so after seeing this. Besides my lifelong love of horror, I think my primary attraction to the screening was the fact that it was free and an excuse to go out. This was only a few months after I had moved to LA; I only had a couple friends and even less money.
Right away the screening promised to be memorable, as we were given little penlights as we walked up to the door to the theater (Arclight Hollywood, for the record - back when it was just "the Arclight" as they hadn't began branching out and diminishing their brand's good name). At first I figured it was just the typically worthless swag you get at these things, but once we were inside it became obvious that they were actually far from worthless - in order to set the mood for the film that followed, the house lights were off, same as they are for a movie already in progress, but without the lit up screen to illuminate things like stairs or seats. The lights weren't blinding by any means, but the feeling around and constant stumbling and knocking into people would have been far worse without them. Probably not the wisest decision in the history of promotional gimmickry, but safety schmafety! This was awesome!
Oh and then the movie was amazing.
The most ironic thing about my love of horror movies is that I barely ever find them scary. If I did an article on the films that truly left me unsettled, it would probably be pretty short (editor's note - GOOD), and I rarely get worked up or have that "edge of your seat" feeling that blurb whores like Peter Travers mention pretty much every other week. And jump scares are the worst - most of them are so telegraphed or routine that I don't even lose my train of thought, let alone jump. But goddamn, I've seen the movie probably 6-7 times now and I STILL get not one but two jolts in the movie's first reel - before they even go into the damn cave! (If you've seen the movie I'm sure you can guess what moments; if not I wouldn't dare spoil them).
Another great thing about the movie is that it would probably be a terrific survival horror film even if the monsters didn't show up. Indeed, when I think about the little things about the movie that I love (and again, that it jolted me twice before anything "happened"), they don't revolve around the humanoid cave creatures - those things are just gravy. No, I love how Marshall and DP Sam McCurdy completely sell the claustrophobic setting, using minimal light (and lots and lots of shadow/total darkness) to put the audience in the shoes of Sarah, Juno, and the rest as they navigate the tunnels and caverns of the unexplored (or is it?) system. One of the film's most intense and terrifying sequences involves a climber who is stuck in a particularly narrow tunnel as it starts to cave in around them - and again, the monsters still haven't even shown up!
Well, not overtly, anyway. I believe I was on my third viewing before I realized that a monster makes an early, unnoticed appearance in a long POV shot as one of the girls looks around a large "room" in the cave system. There isn't a Halloween-esque "sting" on the soundtrack to alert us to its presence, nor do any of the characters notice it. It's one of those things where you can watch the movie with a group at home and have some fun seeing who caught it and who asks "What was it?"; a subtle scare that is all too rare in horror movies. But their first "full blown" appearance is a doozy, and the movie rarely lets up from there as the ever-dwindling group tries to make their way to safety from not only the collapsing tunnels, but the creatures as well. It should be noted that Marshall employed actors instead of the usual stunt men to play the creatures, which gives them some more personality and thus adds immensely to their ability to scare the shit out of audiences. I recently hosted a screening of the film at the New Beverly, and time has been kind to it - both the fans and newcomers to the film were still jumping and shrieking at the right moments (and it kept me awake, which is quite rare as I tend to nod off during my own screenings).
And it's gory as hell! Usually "scary" and "gory" are separate entities; the recognized "scariest" horror films tend to be light on the blood (Halloween, Exorcist, etc), whereas the "goriest" aren't known for terrifying their audiences - did you actually ever get scared at Dead Alive? But there's plenty of material for the guys that still have every issue of "Gorezone" in their closet; not only are the deaths fairly blood-soaked, but the creatures themselves tend to look like mush after one of our heroines deals with them, and there's a leg fracture that ranks among cinema's most wince-inducing. Hell, star Shauna MacDonald's "phoenix rising from the ashes" moment in which she emerges from a pool filled with blood has even been used as the poster in some territories.
In other words, this one pretty much covers everything you'd want out of a horror movie. There's gore if you just want spectacle. There are jump scares if you like the roller coaster ride approach, and more subtle/nerve-wracking moments if you'd rather feel on edge the entire time. The all female cast is very easy on the eyes, but they're not the usual hot bimbos either - they have distinct personalities and none of them are grating, and even better - you understand why they are friends, an ingredient missing from nearly all modern horror films. There's also a melancholy dramatic subplot that serves as the backbone for Sarah's journey throughout the film, which culminates in a very satisfying yet underplayed way. Speaking of which, there has been a bit of negative chatter over the years about the so-called "happy ending" that US audiences saw in theaters (both are available on the DVD/Blu-ray). I don't know if I'd call it "happy" by any means; in fact I'd even argue that the ultimate point is the same in both. The original ending (which is just an extra scene that was excised from the US release) makes this abundantly more clear and heartbreaking, and IS the superior ending - but it's not that much different in my eyes, and should in no way impact your decision to see it if for some reason the US ending is the only one available to you.
Speaking of the theatrical release, I have been amused for nearly six years now about how folks seem to think that it was "unsuccessful" when it opened in the summer of 2006. Sure, it didn't exactly break any records, but $26 million for an imported horror film is hardly something to scoff at - in fact it's DOUBLE what Shaun of the Dead made during its US theatrical run (which was in the more horror friendly fall to boot), just to offer one example. 2006 was positively glutted with horror films, in fact; barely a week went by without another wide release, and one just needs to consult Boxofficemojo to see how many films made only a fraction of what The Descent did (including much higher profile releases like the Pulse remake, Turistas, Slither, and Black Xmas). Hell, The Hurt Locker didn't even do that well and that movie won Best Picture!
And yes, it spawned a sequel. I'm not sure about other territories, but it went straight to video in the US after a brief flirtation with a theatrical release (I even saw a test screening that was projected on 35mm). Obviously it wasn't as well received, and Neil Marshall had next to nothing to do with it (Descent editor Jon Harris directed), but I think it's an above average followup, taking the Halloween II route of picking up almost immediately after the original, which leads to some fun and creative setpieces (a still dangling corpse from this film proves to be very helpful for a character in the sequel, for example). Apart from a truly idiotic final twist, I think it's a worthy successor, considering how high the bar had been set. I doubt a third film is forthcoming; there's been nary a peep about it since the sequel hit stores, but given the direction it appeared to be heading (based on that twist) I am kind of relieved, and I highly doubt they could pull off a third "win" anyway.
To bring this full circle, it's a shame that so few films have even attempted to follow Marshall's lead, let alone succeeded. There aren't a lot of horror films that have come along in the past five years that I've missed, and while I've seen more than enough Saw/Hostel wannabes and zombie comedies in that time, I can't say I've used the phrase "Descent-esque" nearly as often as I'd like (or even once?). Seems to me it's a no-brainer: a scary film with minimal cast/locations, a true "survival" plot, and even a bit of heart at its center. Why am I not SICK of ripoffs by now, instead of wondering where they are? If HMAD was populated with reviews of movies that were inspired by this instead of Saw or (still) Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I might not be looking to retire next year!