The Descent: The Last Great Horror Film
A frank assessment to begin: There are very few contemporary horror films worth watching. The Cabin in the Woods (2011), while enjoyable, is vastly overrated, and despite my willingness to defend The Purge (2013) as a fun time at the movies, I don’t think it is the next horror masterpiece. Let the Right One In (2008) is a beautiful love story with a few gory death scenes, but to classify it as a horror film is stretching the genre to the point where it becomes meaningless and arbitrary. If Let the Right One In is a horror film, so, too, is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). In other words, Let the Right One In is not a horror film, but it does contain a few horrifying moments. To me, a horror film must deliberately elicit an uncomfortable emotional response from the viewer, but it must do this by tapping into the viewer’s deepest fears.
If the box office success of recent entries in the horror genre are any indication (see The Purge, Mama, the Paranormal Activity franchise), audiences still find pleasure in being frightened by the movies. If the “Horror” section in Netflix’s instant streaming service is any indication, a plethora of random titles like Shrooms (2007) and Fear Island (2009) are offered to die-hard horror fans (presumably the only people watching this drek) as if horror fans are heroin addicts who will take anything they can get to satisfy their craving for terror. Instant accessibility to these titles may feel like Christmas, but in reality it is the equivalent of finding a lump of coal wrapped in red paper.
Horror fans deserve better than lazy efforts like Shrooms, and horror filmmakers (and producers, distributors, and financiers) can do better than nonsense like Fear Island. The fact that the last truly great horror film was Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) shows how badly the genre is in need of a revamp. Where is this generation’s Wes Craven when we need him (or her)?
Although some may argue with my choice of The Descent (*gasp* what about Slither!), if you are indeed a horror fan, there is absolutely no denying that The Descent is one of the few contemporary horror films that represents the best the genre has to offer. Therefore, I will use The Descent as an example of great horror, and I will show how Marshall and his production team manage to create this horror for the audience to enjoy.
Since film is creation and creation is artifice, there is a formula for a successful horror film. The formula is not a science, and indeed, some films that follow it are not always scary. However, films that fail to follow it are never scary, which explains why the formula is necessary and why it demands our attention. As I will demonstrate with The Descent, a successful horror film must meet five specific criteria.
First, a few clarifications. I do believe that there is such a thing as scary and not scary, and I don’t necessarily believe that it is subjective. I am certainly not a cognitivist, and I do make room for cultural specificity and historical relativism. For instance, films that were scary to audiences in the 1920s, like Nosferatu, aren’t necessarily scary to audiences today. Having said that, I do think that The Descent is a truly scary film, and I do believe that if one thinks while watching The Descent that they are not scared by the film, then one does not know how to be affected by cinematic horror. At the very least, even if one isn’t scared by The Descent per se, one should be able to understand why a film like The Descent is successful horror. Just as there is more to a comedy than making a person laugh, there is more to a horror than making a person scream. This leads us to the five specific guidelines that filmmakers must follow if they want to create successful cinematic horror.
The first thing a filmmaker must do is deliver a concept. This can be a narrative or a stylistic concept, and in many cases, the filmmaker can combine the two. For instance, The Descent is a relatively simple film about six college girls who embark on a caving expedition, only to find that they become trapped inside of the cave and must defend themselves against a strange breed of monsters that lurk in the dark shadows of the cave. There is nothing complex or original to this narrative concept, but it is designed to create successful horror. In addition to the narrative concept, the film adopts a stylistic concept. The stylistic concept is essentially how the filmmakers choose to present the narrative concept. In The Descent, the filmmakers use hand-held camerawork to create a documentary-like feel, as if to suggest that the audience is observing something that can really happen. Another more famous example of a stylistic concept is The Blair Witch Project (1999). A famous example of a narrative concept is Jaws (1975), i.e., a shark terrorizes a local community. I would argue that most horror films develop simple concepts, and the more complex concepts like The Cabin in the Woods result in failed experiments as opposed to successful horror.
Next, a horror film must make the audience care about its characters. Otherwise, what is the terror in watching a character fear for his or her life if we have no investment with them? Some horror films do this better than others. For example, Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy brilliantly makes us care for Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). I couldn’t say I felt the same about the caricatures in Urban Legend (1998). Typically, filmmakers will throw in a back story or some flashback that makes us sympathize with a protagonist, or strong bonds will develop between the characters who are in danger. In The Descent, the six women come together over the death of one of their friends, and this death is shown in the film’s opening scene. As the film progresses, we understand the bonds that tie these girls together, and the trauma they have been through prior to their caving expedition. This makes the horror they experience in the cave all the more powerful as we root for their escape and survival.
Third, the filmmakers must properly utilize the space of the cinematic screen. That is, they must be conscious of what they show and don’t show. Since The Descent takes place within the confines of a cave, the camerawork is often closed in on the characters to make the audience feel as claustrophobic as the characters do. As an audience, we are never a step ahead of the characters, and this creates an enormous amount of tension as we, like the characters, are uncertain about what lurks beyond the frame. Consider some of the early scenes where the girls are simply crawling through tight spaces inside of the cave, unaware of where they are headed or whether or not they will make it through. Virtually nothing happens here, but the brilliant camerawork creates unease and tension as we feel like the walls are closing in on us as well. Linda Williams describes the horror genre as a body genre, in which we react not with our minds but with our bodies. The way cinematic space is utilized in The Descent surely makes us feel as uncomfortable as the characters. Other notable horror films that successfully use cinematic space are Repulsion (1965) and Halloween (1978).
In addition to cinematic space, filmmakers must take advantage of light or the absence of it. This is yet another reason why The Descent is such a masterful work of cinematic horror. Not only does the cave enclose the characters in tight spaces, but it also forces them to lurk in the darkness. The only light available comes from the flashlight-helmets that the characters wear. This becomes more terrifying as the film progresses because we never know exactly where the creatures are going to be, and neither do the characters. The best horror films play with our fear of the dark, and The Descent is no exception. Other classic examples include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Les Diaboliques (1955), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Finally, filmmakers must know how to use sound. The reason why so many horror films fail, I believe, is because they amp up the music at times when silence would be more frightening. The Descent works so well because most of it is quiet. Not only does the film avoid an overbearing score, but it also makes use of the ambient noises inside of the cave, like echoes, creaks, and distant droppings of water. The greatest horror films understand the power of silence. Consider the scene in Jaws where the shark swims toward the pond. For a few seconds, the soundtrack becomes quiet, and we can only hear the sound of the shark dipping its fin under water. That silence is more terrifying than any other moment in the film. The same applies to the silence in The Descent. Luckily for viewers, the silence sustains most of the film, leaving us with the echoing screams of six women who are forced to fend against strange predators in the dark, confined spaces of an unfamiliar cave.
I don’t doubt that there are other ingredients that can go into a successful horror film, but I maintain that the above five are the only necessary ones, and if a horror film fails to meet all five criteria, it will not be successful. The Descent is the last horror film to successfully meet all five criteria, and as a result, it is the last great horror film cinema has given us.
What do you think? Leave a comment.