The problem with extreme sports: feelings of entombment in The Descent

When it comes to horror movies, people can get trapped in haunted houses, torture chambers, or graves, but caves work especially well because they have no special interest in accommodating humans at all. Cave passageways can always shrink down to nothing or go underwater or suddenly open out to a steep drop, and I can remember taking the casual trip into a cave that got thinner and thinner until the two walls began to squeeze in my ribcage with the complete indifference. Add to that pitch black darkness, and claustrophobia and feelings of entombment can affect anyone.

So, given the effectiveness of the setting, I found the British film The Descent chilling even before other creatures underground started creepy-crawling up to the six assorted young women on vacation in the Appalachians in North Carolina. In the old days, horror movies liked to menace a single weak female in a haunted house, so this film expands on the basic concept exponentially. Only a year after the blond frail Sarah suffers a freak car accident where sliding metal pipes kill off her husband and little girl, her friend Juno somehow entices her into a caving trip with friends. In this post-feminist movie, none of them seems to think twice about jumping into a big hole in a remote mountainside, although one of them says “I’m an English teacher, not $#%ing Tomb Raider!” In the rapid character introductions at the beginning of the film, we learn that riot grrl Holly has great contempt for the boredom of preplanned caving expeditions, so Nora secretly leads them into an unexplored cave because, as she puts it “Without risk, what’s the point?” None of the other women know that their fearless leader has led them down into an unmapped network until their escape route gets sealed off by cascading rocks. There is something almost willfully perverse about their situation then. The extreme sports thinking that got them trapped is so willfully dumb, it somehow seems plausible. Sarah still suffers hallucinations left over from her family’s death, so when she does see an albino figure with simian features slither rapidly over the stalagmites in the distance, no one believes her until it is too late. Tall Nordic Rebecca has the presence of mind to climb over an abyss so that the other women can scoot over using ropes, but the batteries are rapidly getting used up in their flashlights, and Holly stupidly falls down into a hole, fracturing her leg so that the bone shows, and then things really get freaky.

In the tradition of Deliverance, we see the women either gain survival skills quickly or die, and in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project, their use of a video camera heightens the bone yards and the large pools of blood that appear the deeper they go into the cave. One would think that director and writer Neil Marshall would include some semi-erotic moments, but the film gains from its no-nonsense approach to what would otherwise be a campy set-up.

Have you ever hyper-ventilated when most of your body is squeezed upside down into a tiny space, and you are trying to keep your head above a tiny pool of water, and your friend just keeps saying “Breathe, breathe!”? Who needs a race of cannibal cavemen under those conditions? And by plunging the viewer into Sarah’s traumatized and hallucinatory point of view, images of her deceased daughter transforms into snarling albino crawlers. By the end of the film, I was happy to walk out of the dark cold theater and just see daylight.