The Descent quickly captivated me, and it has since become my favorite novel. I've read it (along with its sequel, Deeper) repeatedly over the past 13 years, and each time, I've contemplated what an amazing film it might make. I say "might make," because The Descent tells a massively complex and epic story, and it would take a monumental effort to commit a reasonably faithful adaptation to film. The budget for such a project would be enormous, and some of the themes the book explores would likely be unpalatable for a mass audience, to say nothing of it's sometimes ghastly scenes of violence. As we saw earlier this year, when the plugged was pulled on Guillermo del Toro's long-planned adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, the major Hollywood studios really don't have the stomach for big-budget, R-rated horror films any more. Nevertheless, in the years since its publication, there have been two films that have at least touched upon some of the novel's plot points, with varying degrees of success.
When Neil Marshall's 2005 British horror film The Descent was first announced, fans of Jeff Long's novel could have been forgiven for believing it to be a direct adaptation of the book; many of us were initially convinced that was exactly what it was. The film promised to tell the story of a group of caving enthusiasts who encounter a ghastly race of subterranean humanoids, and the title, coupled with the underground setting and the horrifying, flesh-eating creatures gave the impression that Long's novel might have been a source of inspiration. Ultimately, it ended up being more of a coincidence than anything. While Marshall's film does share certain similarities with the book, and may have even been partially inspired by it on a certain level, it really is its own animal.
The film introduces a group of female friends, including Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who convene periodically for an outdoor adventure of the extreme variety. Following a whitewater rafting trip in Scotland, Sarah's husband and only child are killed in an automobile accident. A year later, the women gather again for a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. The other women hope that the diversion will help Sarah, who is still struggling to cope with her loss. After they're trapped by a cave-in, Juno reveals that they're not in the well-known cave system the others believed they'd be exploring but an uncharted system Juno had hoped they could conquer and name. It soon becomes clear that they're not alone, as a race of vicious, blind, flesh-eating predators begins to prey on them. The women struggle to elude the carnivorous monsters (which the filmmakers refer to as Crawlers) and deal with their own interpersonal conflicts while trying desperately to find another way out of the cave.
At the time of its release, The Descent was hyped as being one of the scariest films ever made, a boast that always brings out my inner skeptic. I missed its brief theatrical release in the US, but I caught up with it when it came out on DVD. While I enjoyed the film well enough the first time around, I allowed myself to buy into the hype, and I was perhaps a bit disappointed that it didn't live up to my unreasonably lofty expectations. Subsequent viewings, however, have deepened my appreciation for the film immensely. Marshall, who had previously directed the well-received werewolf flick Dog Soldiers, has a firm command over the film; he starts things off with a bang, then resets and gradually builds the tension to nearly unbearable levels. The Descent is indeed very, very scary, but it's also very emotionally resonant. There's an undercurrent of grief and loss that runs through the film and adds a poignant element, always an effective thing in a horror film, which are too-often devoid of any emotions other than fear. While in the hospital following the opening car crash, Sarah has an eerie dream involving a darkened corridor that foreshadows later events in the film, and her emotional breakdown upon awakening and learning of the death of her family is difficult to watch. The acting, especially by leads Macdonald and Mendoza, is of a uniformly high quality, and it's refreshing to see a film packed with strong, female protagonists. There are literally no noteworthy male characters in the film save for Sarah's ill-fated husband and the male Crawlers.
Of course, The Descent is at its core a survival horror film, and once it gets going, it delivers the expected elements in spades. The unrated version is extremely gory, as the Crawlers attempt (often with graphic success) to capture and devour the cavers, who fight for their lives with equal ferocity. In particular, Sarah transforms from an emotionally fragile woman at the beginning to a sort of Terminator figure by the end, mercilessly dispatching the subhuman Crawlers left and right but also dishing out a ruthless form of justice to a fellow group member who has transgressed against her in more ways than one. Remarkably, the film's cave scenes were all filmed on studio-built sets, but it's impossible to distinguish them from the real thing. An early scene which showcases the group working their way through an extremely tight space which ultimately collapses will undoubtedly be nerve-wracking for anyone who suffers from even a hint of claustrophobia. I have no doubt that having seen this film in a darkened theater would have added to its effect immensely, and I'm sorry that I didn't go when I had the chance, although the US theatrical version had its violence toned down to secure an R rating and also had its ending tampered with at the behest of preview audiences who found the original finale too bleak. As it stands, I much prefer the original ending; although it is unquestionably downbeat and grim, it has a certain poetry that brings the film's poignant streak full circle. (In any case, the ending was negated by the film's sequel, The Descent: Part 2, which picks up right where this one leaves off.) David Julyan's hauntingly effective score accents the film perfectly; it's scary and ominous when it needs to be, and appropriately somber during the more emotional scenes.
It seems that fans of The Descent (the book) who still hope to someday see a faithful film adaptation will have to continue to wait, just like we've been waiting less-than-patiently for Long to finish the rumored third novel in the series (come on Jeff, you're killing us!). A definitive film version may in fact never be made, but for those who crave more subterranean horrors, Neil Marshall's gripping film The Descent and the comparatively lackluster Born of Earth will have to do for now.