The Descent is scary. Run home to your Momma scary. Scream like a little girl scary. Close your eyes and think of something else scary. “Hold me, I’m scared” scary.
It’s the story of a group of thrill seeking female friends who meet a couple of times a year to climb mountains, base jump and leap out of planes. When we first meet them they are all happy, smiling broadly while white water rafting. This being a horror movie you just know that soon those smiles will be wiped off their faces.
Sure enough, not even five minutes in things take a turn for the worse when tragedy strikes one of this feisty bunch. The group works through the heartbreak in the only way they know how—by taking another huge risk. This time they decide to jump in a big hole. They go spelunking.
A yawning underground cave is the perfect setting for a horror film. You have darkness, shadows (and maybe even mysterious shadowy figures), and claustrophobic atmosphere. The Descent makes great use of its surroundings playing off our primal fears—fear of the dark, fear of small, enclosed spaces, fear of not being in control. As the women go further down into the cave their situation becomes dire and the tension builds for the viewer. First time director Neil Marshall skillfully turns up the heat, making the audience feel for this cast of unknowns as their resolve is pushed to the limit. Two miles underground there isn’t any sunshine and the movie reflects that, getting darker the further down they travel. It’s bleak, violent and gets bleaker and more violent as the movie goes on.
The Descent has plenty of gory moments but it isn’t the blood and guts that terrifies. It is the hopeless situation, the unrelenting air of menace that really plays on the viewer’s fears.
In the new 3-D film Sanctum, a group of cave divers get their spelunk on in the least accessible cave system on Earth. Down deep they encounter problems and end up in a fight for their lives.
If that synopsis sounds familiar, it should. Most cave movies—and yes, that is a bona fide genre—have very similar plots.
Here’s the typical rundown: A group of people jump into a giant hole and then really bad things happen. Usually at least one of the characters says, “It’s so deep… you can’t even see the bottom” just before they disappear forever.
Why do we keep coming back for more—and why do people like Sanctum producer James Cameron keep making these movies? I think it’s because they’re about the most basic primal feelings of all— claustrophobia, fear of the dark and the unknown. What could be scarier than a giant hole with who-knows-what living in it?
The most frightening giant cave movie has to be The Descent, a 2005 scary spelunker that features the second most used line in cave diving flicks: “No one’s ever been down here before.” The film focuses on six women trapped in an Appalachian Mountains cave system. That’s scary. Even scarier are the pasty humanoid creatures that start hunting them. Horror website Bloody Disgusting ranked it as one of the top horror films of the decade and Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars.
A sequel, imaginatively titled The Descent: Part 2, came four years later. Although it was advertised as being “deeper and darker” than the original, it isn’t nearly as bloodcurdling.
2005 was a big year for creepy cave movies. The Cave, starring Piper Perabo and Cole Hauser as cavers who are stalked by bloodthirsty creatures, may have a plot about original as the movie’s name, but it does offer some genuinely terrifying moments.
If the subterranean creepy crawlers of The Cave (or others like What Waits Below or WithIn) aren’t for you, then perhaps the 3-D thrills of Cave of Forgotten Dreams will appeal. In this breathtaking documentary, director Werner Herzog explores the Chauvet caves of Southern France, literally a 33,000-year-old art gallery containing 400 Palaeolithic cave paintings. The legendarily loopy German filmmaker studies the drawings, made to replicate the movement of animals, and asks, “Is it a kind of proto-cinema?” It’s a wild, gripping look at life beneath the surface.