It’s mid-September, which means dark evenings are creeping ever closer and the time is nigh to curl up (or assume the fetal position) whilst watching scary movies at home. Don’t forget a bowl of premature Halloween candy and a packed bowl of somethin’ else. You’ve probably all seen the perennial “Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby” (and if you haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for?) so I’m here to recommend a lesser-known cult favorite, a British horror film called “The Descent.”
“The Descent” pays respectful homage to horror classics, but invents a few tricks of its own. Best of all, the narrative passes the Bechdel Test with soaring colors (a work of fiction passes the “test” when featuring at least two women who talk to each other about something other than their relationship with a man). Here, six female friends go spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains. They’re intrepid cave-diving aficionados, but their mission this time around is steeped in underlying gloom, as one of the group recently lost her husband and child in a car accident. Her pals try to jolt her out of depression, or at least hearken back to simpler times.
The on-screen friendships feel complex and genuine, as the girls nurture subtle resentments and jealousies, plus lots of sisterly affection. But their bonds are tested once some rocks cave in and leave everyone trapped in an underground claustrophobia hell-scape. With scant supplies and dwindling headlamp batteries, it comes as no surprise when there’s something other than cave bats lurking in the bowels of the earth. As the girls scrape through tight tunnels and rappel over yawning chasms, they suspect they’re not alone. You’ll be squirming in your seat, whether frightened of small spaces or not, and your heightened stoned spidey-senses might notice shapes moving in the background of a scene, far before the characters ever do.
This is more than a mere monster flick. It’s about people pushed to their physical and psychological limits, forced to face the truth about who they are and what they mean to each other. A few of the girls become unexpectedly in-their-element down in the caves; these women are tough, willing to transform into cold-blooded killers when necessary. There aren’t many films allowing for female characters to show they have a “beast within” (another horror gem, “Carrie,” is a good example of this), but “The Descent” positively celebrates it. The mutant creatures are almost beside the point – the maddest energy comes from the human beings, desperate for survival.
— Anya Jaremko-Greenwold