This post, originally written in October 2014, was inspired by The Guardian’s Halloween series of articles from their film and culture team of writers.
I was already a pretty hardened horror fan by the time I saw Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic caving film The Descent a couple of years ago.
I’d been chilled by the classics like Psycho and The Shining had really got under my skin. I’d been disturbed and troubled for days by the horrifying conclusion to George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (The Vanishing). But no film had ever got to me in the same way as The Descent did.
The film, from British director Neil Marshall – now best known for Game of Thrones – follows a small group of women on a spelunking expedition in an uncharted network of caves. Tensions between the group become the least of their concerns when an army of humanoid monsters attack and pursue them through the underground tunnels. Escape, very quickly, becomes something of a pipe dream.
The genius of The Descent has very little to do with the creatures that pursue our heroes. From the moment that the six central characters enter the cave, Marshall does an incredible job at creating a palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia. I have never been more troubled watching a horror film than I was during the opening stages of The Descent, before a single creature had appeared.
Of course, when the creatures do appear, the terror ratchets up another notch. Our first clear sight of the ‘Crawlers’ comes via a night vision camera in one of the best jump scares I have ever seen. Such is the level of tension Marshall has created at this point that the jump scare doesn’t even create the same level of catharsis as the average horror jolt. It doesn’t relieve the tension; it just interrupts it for a second.
From then on, The Descent becomes an expertly paced journey even further into the unknown. The characters are threatened by their environment, by the creatures and even by each other as their roles are given depth and backstory. These aren’t just nameless, faceless horror movie victims; they are women with complexities and flaws.
It’s clear that a horror film is something special when the knot of unease in the stomach never loosens. I was completely on-edge and poised for shock from the first frame of The Descent to the last. The ending is gloriously bleak, too, refusing to provide the Hollywood happy ending that leaves a black mark on even some of the greatest films in the history of the genre.
There’s little doubt in my mind that, in terms of pure terror, The Descent is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. I will likely be braving my second viewing of the film this Halloween and I’m more than prepared for another sleepless night, wondering what lurks in the dark.
Do you agree with my choice of The Descent as the most purely terrifying horror film of all time? Which film frightened you the most? Let me know in the comments section below. And also, find more of our Halloween content to scare you silly on the spookiest night of the year.