[Welcome back, readers! With the 2017 Sundance Film Festival beginning this week, we thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the great midnight movies that have come out of the fest over the years. Be sure to check back here each day this week for more Midnight Memories from Daily Dead!]

Last January marked ten years since Neil Marshall’s The Descent was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Over a decade after it was featured in the Park City at Midnight lineup, The Descent is almost universally considered a modern horror classic, which is unfortunate for yours truly because until recently, I’d never actually seen it. But after finally venturing into this cave, I am happy to say that this is one of those rare movies that completely lives up to the hype.

For those unfamiliar with the basics, The Descent follows six women as they go on a spelunking trip in the North Carolina stretch of the Appalachian Mountains. A year before, one of the group members, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), lost both her husband and her daughter in a car accident, and her friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) sees this as an opportunity to bond in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Unfortunately, in a misguided attempt to mend her relationship with Sarah, rather than take the group on their planned route, Juno leads them to an uncharted cave that she figures the women can be the first to conquer. Unfortunately, this cave is so off the map that when a collapse blocks their way out, they find themselves with no escape and no hope of rescue. As if this weren’t bad enough, the cave is crawling with carnivorous, bat-like creatures that call it home.

One of the most notable surprises about this movie is how Marshall patiently waits to introduce his “crawlers.” In fact, it’s over halfway through the movie before we even first lay eyes on one. But the first fifty minutes are anything but boring, as Marshall takes his time setting the stakes and letting the cave itself serve as the antagonist. While I don’t often suffer from claustrophobia, I have to admit that watching Sarah attempt to wriggle out of an extremely tight tunnel had my limbs spontaneously twitching just to make sure they had room to move.

As the women progress deeper into the cave, Marshall plays with lighting in very interesting ways. After all, we need to view this world through the light available to the group, and it’s unlikely that the crawlers would have had contractors wire the cave to power Bork light fixtures that they bought from IKEA. Instead, set pieces glow a sinister red as the explorers spark flares, a creepy green phosphorescence when they crack glow sticks, and a flickering orange when they resort to using torches. As the crawlers make their presence known, we only catch passing glimpses through the small cone of light from a head-mounted lamp, or through the infrared viewfinder of a video camera.

In addition to creating atmosphere, Marshall also allows us to spend time with well-constructed and complex female characters, which is particularly noteworthy considering he’s a man writing for a main cast composed solely of the opposite sex. Initially the script called for a mix of men and women, but Marshall noted that few horror movies utilize an all-female cast, so he swapped women in for the male roles. To avoid letting the characters slip into clichés, he consulted women in his circle of friends to provide notes and ensure authenticity.

What he wound up creating is a group that kicks the Bechdel test in the nards. Each of these ladies brings her own strength and complexity to the proceedings, and so much credit is due to the actresses. As Sarah and Juno, Macdonald and Mendoza get the meatiest stuff to work with and they’re both up to the task. But there really isn’t a weak link to be found in the group. Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) all portray fleshed-out characters with their own moments to shine. When Juno accidentally stabs Beth in the neck with her pickaxe, the blend of confusion, hurt, and betrayal Reid delivers in a mere moment is heartbreaking and damn fine work.

While at first seeming unnecessary, the sub-plot about Juno having an affair with Sarah’s husband adds some pretty integral layers to the story without ever becoming the movie’s focal point. It’s one of several elements that depict Juno as deeply flawed, yet she never quite crosses the line to becoming irredeemable. At the same time, we’re left to ponder how we might react in Sarah’s position when forced to confront Juno’s actions. The Descent is all about examining what we become when our backs are against the wall, and the harsh choices we might be willing to make in those moments.

This devolution to a primitive state of survival is not only shown through character portrayal, but also by some glorious, bloody effects. Where some horror films feature “elegant” effects of sharp blades cleanly slashing flesh or neatly slicing off body parts, everything in this movie is messy. Broken bones protrude through skin and flesh is torn apart—the gore and viscera show that if anyone survives this encounter, their physical scars will be just as deep as their psychological ones.

One psychological theory posits that the crawlers never existed, but were rather a manifestation of Sarah’s psychosis as she murders the other women. Intrigued by this theory, I paid close attention for any clues one way or the other. Early on, there are hints that the movie could be setting up Sarah as the source of impending mayhem. To cope with her trauma after the car accident, she takes some kind of unidentified prescription medication. The group also talks about the possible mental effects of deep cave exploration, which include hallucinations.

That being said, I tend to believe that in the universe of The Descent, crawlers are very much real. Sarah isn’t the only one to see them, and since there are no indications that the story is being told from Sarah’s point of view, there is no reason to believe that she is an unreliable narrator. Plus, I prefer the idea that the crawlers are real, because it suggests that traumatic events in our lives aren’t necessarily going to be isolated incidents. Sarah has already been through the wringer well before setting foot in the cave. The trauma caused by these events is cumulative, and by the end of the movie they have taken a toll on Sarah that has irrevocably damaged her.

While I may be ten years late to the party, I’m so happy that I got to watch The Descent now that I have the platform to adequately sing its praises. This nearly flawless film packs such a visual and emotional punch, that I’m sure fans both new and old will be basking in all its dark, vicious glory when we celebrate its 20th anniversary.


Click here to read more Sundance Midnight Memories from the Daily Dead team.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.