Welcome to Screamworthy! As spooky season reaches its zenith, your trusty FOX Digital film critics will be taking a look at some of the weirdest, wildest and most-talked about horror movies of this year and years past. Next up: Culture writer Emma Fraser grabs her headlamp and spelunks into "The Descent," which is now streaming (for free!) on Tubi. This piece was originally published on Sept. 29, 2021.
British horror has produced a variety of memorable classics, from 1970s triumphs like "The Wicker Man" and "Don’t Look Now" to the more recent "28 Days Later" entry from Danny Boyle. Lingering monsters, grief acting as a spectral force and isolated communities are all recurring themes within the impressive roster of scary movies that have come out of the United Kingdom, and "The Descent" taps into all of these aspects.
Directed by Neil Marshall ("Game of Thrones," "Hell Boy"), "The Descent" is often lauded as one of the best horror films of the last 20 years. It deserves that reputation. Certainly, it is a masterclass in escalating tension that dishes out dread long before the magnitude of the desperate scenario is fully realized.
So, what is the premise? Six women who love nothing more than adrenaline-pumping outdoor activities head into the Appalachian Mountains (the majority is set in the U.S., but was filmed in the U.K.) for a thrill-seeking spelunking adventure.
Soon, old wounds are reopened along the very dark way of the cave system, and it isn’t long before matters take a deadly turn.
Why you should dive into ‘The Descent’
The opening sequence sets the terrifying tone, and it is hard to recover from this initial jaw-dropping incident. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is the beating heart of this story, with and trauma rooted as deeply as the fictitious Chattooga National Park caves.
The mood is jovial as Sarah and friends enter the cave system until the desire to triumph over an undiscovered piece of land rears its ugly head. Hubris is often as much of a monster in sinister locations as vampires or werewolves and this folly is not relegated to male explorers.
As the six women head into a darkness penetrated only by headlamps, torches and flares, it is clear the majority of the group expected thrills – but without the added peril.
Running at 98 minutes, this taut ride takes as many turns as the women navigating the equally beautiful and oppressive depths below. A horror film that takes a simple concept and throws in complex friendship dynamics, arrogance and the residual force of profound sorrow is a potent mix that more than delivers in "The Descent."
In addition to the lack of light and bubbling conflict between friends, the claustrophobic spaces effectively put the audience on edge long before the terror truly kicks in.
The movies ‘The Descent’ pays homage to
While searching for the next high and the honor of being first, de-facto group leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) inadvertently takes her friends into an environment that owes as much to "Jaws" as it does "Alien."
The ocean depths and the infinite abyss of space are switched out for subterranean spaces difficult (if not impossible) to maneuver, or to escape. A handheld camcorder offers echoes of "The Blair Witch Project" — and produces one of the film’s biggest scares — but avoids becoming a carbon copy of the found footage movie through its economical use.
In fact, Marshall sprinkles this original story with visual nods to other classics like "Carrie" and "The Evil Dead" without ever allowing the film to become a game of horror movie bingo.
While avoiding spoiler-laden specifics, it is also worth noting that Macdonald as Sarah serves as a twist on the classic Final Girl (think Laurie Strode in "Halloween" and Sidney Prescott in "Scream") that dominates the slasher subgenre — but the will to survive runs through all six women.
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Two different endings shift the impact of the climax, and the British version packs a bigger punch than its counterpart (which is the one you’ll see on Tubi).
[Editor’s note: After you’ve watched the U.S. version, you can find the U.K. ending on YouTube. It’s worth a look — you know, during the daylight hours.]
Either way, more than 15 years after its original release, this remains a must-see movie to add to your spooky season watch list. It’s one that will make you think twice before venturing underground.
About the writer: Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. You can find her talking about all of these things on Twitter.
Make it a double feature with "Shivers," streaming free on Tubi
One of the first films from groundbreaking body horror auteur David Cronenberg, "Shivers" (also called "They Came From Within," among other titles) includes an unusually direct warning at the end of its trailer: "If this film doesn’t make you scream and squirm, you’d better see a psychiatrist — quick." And honestly, that’s not bad advice. A scientist in a fancy apartment kills a young woman and then himself, a terrifying occurrence that’s only the beginning of the nightmare "Shivers" conjures. It turns out the not-so-good doctor was experimenting with a lethal parasite, one that turns its host into a bloodthirsty, sexually crazed human wrecking ball. Rated R. 87 minutes. Dir: David Cronenberg. Featuring: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie.
How to watch "The Descent"
"The Descent" is streaming free on Tubi.
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