The horror genre has found a major upswing in recent years, gaining critical and commercial successes with several different takes on the horror genre. Before the modern era though, there was a distinct entry to the genre that deserves more recognition than it gets. Directed by Game Of Thrones veteran Neil Marshall, The Descent is one of the best horror films of the 21st century, mixing a keen eye for action and horror with a grounded character drama years before that became a more standard approach to the genre.
What Makes The Descent So Special?
The Descent focuses on Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), a recent widow still grieving the loss of her husband and daughter. Her friends Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Beth (Alex Reid), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) convince her to go explore a mountain and descend into an unknown cave system. However, after getting trapped underground, the women discover they aren’t alone — as a breed of terrifying subhumans called Crawlers has adjusted to the darkness and become a vicious and animalistic predator species. The six women do their best to escape the Crawlers, with the tight confines of the cave system quickly turning against them.
The Descent works on a batch of levels, elevating it beyond even the best of the recent horror genre fare. The film explores poignant themes of mourning and grief with Sarah, whose lingering pain over the loss of her family is shown to have dulled life around her. But being forced to fight for her life — and the lives of her increasingly doomed friends — brings a fire back to the woman that makes her an iconic figure in the pantheon of horror heroines and feels more in line with modern takes on the genre than the resurgence of slasher and gore-driven movies that dominated the era when it was released. The interpersonal drama keeps the film grounded and compelling, as the characters find the right balance between distinct and relatable to make the dangers all the more real — and the group is steadily picked off in heartbreaking fashion. It covers the same kind of ground modern horror movies are praised for — and it does so while also being an incredibly effective horror-action film.
Why The Descent Is a Must-Watch Horror Film
The Crawlers are a straightforward threat that the film introduces toward the end of the first act, compounding the movie’s already intense feelings of claustrophobia. A story just focusing on the group trying to escape the caves as they change and collapse around them would have been scary enough, but the escalation of the Crawlers and their numbers only amplifies the danger. They’re a perfectly straightforward threat, capable of intense fights and jump scares but not impossible to overcome, giving their confrontations a more engaging edge. They follow similar directives as the Entity from Smile and don’t get over-explained — which would have lessened the mysterious elements of the creatures and stolen attention away from the character arcs that ground the film. Yet, they remain a consistent and dangerous enough threat to never be taken for granted.
The Descent even subverts the typical tropes of horror stories by highlighting how a group of women who’ve survived dangerous environments before could actually hold their own against the Crawlers, with Sarah and Juno, in particular, receiving some intense action-sequences where they take down Crawlers . It’s a clever way to lengthen the action and escalate the tension, as the heroes might be able to escape if they’re quick and fast enough. The Descent is one of those films that works on almost every level it attempts, creating a juggling act that finds the balance between action, horror, and drama to make an ideal scary adventure. The Descent is one of the best horror films of the 21st century, a dark but grounded exploration into the depths of the world and friendship in equal measure — while also including plenty of unexpected murder.
The Descent is now streaming on Paramount+ and Amazon Prime Video.