“Look, there’s no going back now. We have to find a way out of this chamber and keep pushing forward.”
It’s rare that I see a movie twice in theaters, but the day after I saw The Descent I went back and watched it again. Somehow, describing this movie with my usual array of breathless adjectives doesn’t seem adequate. This is one of the best horror films of its decade. Arguably the best between 2002 (28 Days Later) and 2008 (Let the Right One In); nothing released during that period really even comes close.
Any discussion of The Descent has to start with Neil Marshall, a writer-director whose career has had some severe ups and downs. On the up side, Marshall has done some excellent television directing the past few years, particularly crafting the “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” episodes of Game of Thrones. His facility for clear, comprehensible, meaningful action is probably his greatest strength. On the down side, Marshall wrote and directed Doomsday, a film so execrable that it’s hard to believe the same person made The Descent; in terms of thoughtfulness, meticulous plotting and theme, they’re complete opposites. I was so disheartened by Doomsday that I haven’t seen any of Marshall’s subsequent film work.
What’s more important, though, are the similarities between The Descent and Marshall’s first major film, Dog Soldiers, because The Descent is in many ways the perfected version of what Dog Soldiers attempted. Both movies focus on a single-gender group of people who encounter a monstrous force in an isolated location; both movies frame this conflict through the lens of one character becoming more comfortable with violence in order to survive. The difference between them isn’t just that werewolves are awful but that The Descent is more serious, more original, more compelling, better constructed, and contains one (1) fewer character whose entire purpose is to set up a very delayed pun.
But let’s dispense with context, shall we? The Descent works wonderfully all on its own. The film begins with a group of women whitewater rafting down a river, and the scene acts like an effective metaphor for the movie itself: this is an exciting, unpredictable thrill ride of a film. Every element of the set-up could wander off into its own excellent horror movie; every twist of the plot brings the viewer into a deeper and darker realm of the narrative. It’s a haunting, beautiful journey.
The film has a very small cast, with most of the supporting characters only lightly sketched at that. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) are the exceptions (more on them later). The others in the friend group include Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Beth is an English teacher, a little older and pretty sensible. Sam is a sweet med student who gets tough in a crisis. Rebecca, Sam’s sister, is experienced and safety-minded. Holly is a punk-ish thrill-seeker who works with Juno, a little younger and more impulsive than the rest. The women meet up maybe once a year to have some kind of outdoorsy adventure–mountain climbing, things like that. Last year it was the whitewater rafting. That’s the trip where Sarah’s husband and young daughter were killed in a car crash (a brutal, devastating scene); in the aftermath, Juno couldn’t handle staying around to comfort Sarah. Now the women surround Sarah with good cheer, all prepared to follow Juno on a group spelunking expedition into the nearby Boram Caverns under the Appalachians. The trip is Juno’s way of making up for her failure as a friend the year before. It’s Juno’s shame and weakness that dooms them all, and which, like the caverns themselves, goes deeper than we know.
A large part of what makes The Descent so excellent is that it takes its sweet time ramping up the tension and horror. After the initial jolt of the car accident (and a simple but eerie dream sequence set in a hospital), the film backs off to let the atmosphere build. The score underlines the dramatic significance of the women’s journey, making it feel both grand and foreboding, while quiet moments highlight their ominousness. A group photograph is displayed in black and white, as if a picture of people who are already dead. Rebecca lists all the many dangers that can befall cavers who aren’t careful, so many that the audio fades out before she can finish:
“That’s rule number one: file a flight plan and stick to it. Rule number two? Don’t go wandering off. You think it’s dark when you turn off the lights, well, down there it’s pitch black. You can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deterioration… The cave can collapse. You can drown…”
These early scenes establish character in little moments, but Marshall is also planting a series of set-ups that he’ll call back to far, far down the line–Sam’s ridiculous watch, for instance, will come back at the worst possible time. The script’s clarity and focus shouldn’t be remarkable, because all movies should be this well-written. It’s a shame that they aren’t. In The Descent, we know everything we need to know at any given point in a plausible, organic fashion. One of the proofs of this is that the last 30 minutes or so of the movie is virtually dialogue free–we understand the story so well that the camera can tell the rest.
The direction in the film is really effective, really beautiful, and rarely intrusive, which is no mean feat. The cave sequences are incredible, but look at this beginning portion, before we follow Sarah and her friends down under the earth. The camera always knows where to look, and when to look away, as when it leaves the marching girls to zoom in on the entrance to the cave system ahead. The editing always knows what insert shots to pick up and what to leave out–a sequence of reaction shots after Sarah remembers something her dead husband used to say are crucial to a scene much later but gathered here with a casual neatness. The cinematography paints the landscape like the region is drowning in the air. The ground is wet and muddy, the trees oppressive; grays, browns, diseased greens and sickly blues dominate the color pallette. Nothing bad has even happened yet, but every aspect of the film’s style is preparing us for a painful story and a grim ending.
A flat circle of darkness in the earth, the cave entrance is ominous all by itself. “I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider,” quips Beth as the women contemplate the journey before them. The caves they’re about to enter are like a whole other world, one that obeys different rules, and there are many ways to look at the underground space’s symbolic meaning. Traveling down there is like entering the mind’s subconscious, a level of human thought and animal instinct that operates in secret. For these women, it’s also like climbing into the human body through the vaginal entrance, a reversal of the birth process (as they slide down on umbilical-like ropes, no less) that leads them into a realm of unbeing. The hole itself is like the foreboding maw of the grave; and to the literary minded, it conjures notions of Doré and Dante at the gate of Hell:
The descent is underway. Once in the caverns, the film operates on a simple but effective pattern. Each room has one entrance and one exit, and each inevitably either leads further down, or (when there are pits in the floor) threatens to do so. The walls are slick and water is always falling. Light sources shift between the yellow/white of the girls’ headlamps, the brilliant red of their flares, or later the eerie green of their glowsticks. Filmed on sets, each cavern looks plausible but also somehow unreal; their jagged compositions are like an externalization of the women’s internal emotional turmoil–Holly’s claustrophobia, Rebecca’s anger, Juno’s guilt, etc. Sarah in particular is feeling uncertain of her hold on reality; she keeps finding odd clues, or seeing figures out of the corner of her eye. The caves don’t just seem subterranean but primordial, a notion reinforced when they women discover ancient cave paintings covering one room’s walls.
As the women squeeze and crawl through tighter and tighter spaces, our apprehension only grows. This portion of the movie climaxes with a scene that is easily one of the scariest in the movie, although it involves no violence or supernatural monsters. One by one, the group makes their way through a very narrow tunnel, inching forward on their stomachs and pushing their gear bags ahead of them, until Sarah finds that she’s stuck and begins to panic. The notion of being trapped beneath the earth is a powerful one, going back in horror at least to Poe’s stories of people buried alive, if not earlier, and we empathize entirely with Sarah’s fear. Beth talks her through it, unintentionally lying: “What are you so afraid of? … Listen, the worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened…” The scene is shot mostly in very uncomfortable close-ups, lit by the bright beam of their headlamps, which pick up the movement of dust in the tiny space. When the camera pulls out, here as in other scenes, the visible area takes up a jagged fraction of the whole screen (which is otherwise darkness), giving us a sense of compression and limitation. In the most horrifying moment, part of the tunnel’s rocky ceiling suddenly slides down, compressing the screen space even further and threatening to bury Sarah completely.
That the film gives us time to breathe after that, in a much larger and more open room, is only so that we can focus on what the story is telling us: these women are utterly fucked, and it’s all Juno’s fault. In her arrogance and selfish guilt, Juno has tricked all her friends into entering the wrong cavern–not Boram, the easy, safe, tourist-y area that their official flight plan lists them as exploring, but an unnamed system. “I wanted us all to discover it!” Juno protests, trying to justify her insane risk. Now that a cave-in has blocked the way in, it’s unclear if the system even has a way out. But the only way out, if there is one, is through, and so the women reluctantly continue to descend deeper into the earth.
If anything, the sequences that follow are even more tense, because the stakes are raised–it’s now a real question of survival, as the women cross a pit on ropes and work to help Holly, who suffers a nasty injury when she falls after rushing ahead.
Holly: “Why are we walking away? It was daylight back there!”
Juno: “It wasn’t daylight, it was phosphorous in the rock. We’re two miles underground, the only light down here is ours.”
Holly: (groaning) “Well, it looked like fucking daylight to me!”
In these and other sequences, the procedural details of their journey increase our sense of realism. Juno decides between potential turnings by checking for a draft with her lighter; Sam crafts a splint for Holly out of duct tape and the haft of an ice axe. Sarah, on the other hand, is experiencing details rather more surreal–finding very old mining equipment, or spotting pale, humanoid figures in the distance. We might begin to wonder if her recent trauma and loss are affecting her–after all, Rebecca did tell us that caving can lead to hallucinations. When Sarah tries to tell the others what she’s seen, they pretty much dismiss her. Kindly, but still.
The Descent succeeds for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it joins some of the greatest horror movies ever made (Alien, for example) in structuring itself as a kind of delayed one-two punch. 55 minutes into what is barely a 90-minute feature, this is still an engrossing, tense, effective story, and no monsters have yet emerged. Had the movie continued in this vein, following the realistic human interest story of friends struggling to escape an unknown cave, it might still have been a unique and compelling drama. Instead, nearly an hour in, we get the second punch: an attack from the monsters that inhabit this place. Contact between the two groups is as swift and brutal as it is unexpected. Screeching, hissing, the monsters–pale, blind creatures more like Tolkein’s Gollum than human beings–first encircle the women, then attack, leaping and biting. Panicking, the group is immediately separated from one another. For the rest of the film, each will survive or die according to her ability to run, hide, fight, and access an adrenaline-fueled, animal bloodlust within themselves.
The pacing continues to be marvelous as the film moves fully into a horror mode. Divided by themselves or in pairs, the women explore the surrounding tunnels and rooms, stalked by the gross, clicking monstrosities. Sometimes the crawlers (as the credits call them) hide in plain sight on the ceiling; other times they seem to prefer to sneak up behind their victims and invoke a startle response. Sequences that in other films would get milked for all they’re worth (and maybe then some) are efficiently used and dispatched in a handful of shots, as when Juno dives into a pool of water and encounters a crawler down there. As Marshall cuts between parallel lines of action, he effectively orchestrates tone, action, and expectations, from tense scenes of the women being followed in the dark to moments of extreme gore, horrible wounds and splattering, spraying blood to pauses for the grieving of lost friends taken with a terrible suddenness. Along the way, the movie gives us a simple but clear understanding of the nature of these monsters and their environment, from the darkest depths to the rocky ceilings, from the watery pits to the bloody and bone-strewn charnel room where the creatures drag their food. Sam examines a dead one and offers some limited thoughts:
“Well… they’re totally blind. And judging from what we’ve seen, I’d say they use sound to hunt with, like a bat. And they’ve evolved perfectly to live down here in the dark.”
It’s possible to take The Descent purely on a literal level, as an exciting, scary, fast-paced story; but through cinematography, score, and especially Sarah’s recurring dream sequences, the movie encourages you to understand it symbolically as well. My preferred way to engage the film’s themes, the way I think the rest are intended to support as subordinate mirroring associations, is that the cave represents the unhappy mind. Sarah’s journey through it in search of an escape back to the surface is like a working through of her traumatic loss; their dark and twisted depths reflect the labyrinthine nature of despair. In this light, many other aspects of the film fall into place. The women each choose different strategies for success in this environment, and live or die as a result. Holly, for instance, suffers injury (and is therefore too weak to withstand the crawlers) while eagerly chasing false daylight–but there is no cheating out of the full process of recovery. The monsters themselves are a form of humanity evolved to exist in an environment of despair; rather than moving forward to true human life on the surface, they live in a state of grim anguish–demons of Hell who serve as terrible examples to Sarah and her friends. Notice how attracted they are to Sam’s watch, a token of love from her boyfriend; symbolically, they’re drawn to positive emotion, eager to destroy it. And then there’s Juno.
Spoilers past this point, but the only way out is through…
One of the film’s most subtle arcs is the way it expresses what Juno is going through. At first glance, we may feel that she’s merely foolish, a woman driven by internal needs to endanger others for attention and what Holly refers to as “the next big high.” But from the start, Juno consistent finds herself isolated from the group. Not just the moment of withdrawing from a distressed Sarah in the hospital (a moment of cowardice and guilt Juno will replay again in the caves), but little moments at the cabin where the women meet before the expedition. Jogging by herself in the morning, or metaphorically separated from her friends’ joy and togetherness within a shot that pans from Juno outside the cabin to the others seen through the window:
What keeps Juno mentally and emotionally apart from her friends, and what drives her to send them to the wrong cabin at great risk to them all? Like Sarah, Juno is grieving–but where Sarah’s grief is open and thus available for comforting, Juno’s is a secret shame. “We all lost something in that crash,” she insists, but she’s not borrowing Sarah’s trauma to feed her own ego; she’s being honest. Juno, we discover, was having an affair with Sarah’s husband–in fact, the situation may have caused his distraction while driving, resulting in the car accident that claims both his life and the life of Sarah’s daughter. As a result of the deaths, Juno is trapped in her own private hell. She’s guilty over her potential role in the accident; grieving a man she sincerely seems to have loved; and ashamed that her own emotional distress prevented her from honestly helping Sarah to recover. These negative emotions define Juno and drive all her bad decisions, including her plan to somehow make up for her actions by giving Sarah the kind of thrilling adventure they used to have. Juno’s betrayal of Sarah in the hospital is mirrored when, after killing several crawlers in the initial attack, Juno accidentally stabs Beth in the neck with an ice axe… and then, instead of helping, leaves her there to die. Juno believes that if she ignores (or justifies, or makes up for) her complicity in hurting her friends, that the problem just goes away, a notion that also expresses itself in the film in her ease at finding that animal place where murdering the crawlers (those hissing symbols of adaption to despair) is possible because it’s desperately necessary. In terms of recovery, Juno stands for denial. No decision she makes in the film is more personally ill-advised than her choice to wait to leave the caverns until she’s found Sarah. Juno still thinks she can rescue her terrible plan, make it up to Sarah by playing the hero and saving her from death. But Sarah already knows her secrets.
Sarah’s journey, finally, is where the film truly earns its name. Beyond the literal descent into the earth or the emotional one into a hell of terror and death, Sarah’s descent is one of de-evolution. In order to survive down there in the dark, Sarah must evolve backwards, to become like the monsters. Knocked unconscious during the initial attack, she awakens in the charnel room in a shot that presages her transformation; in the green night-vision filter and distorted viewpoint of the camcorder the women brought with them, she visually resembles the pale creatures:
This distorted viewpoint also becomes her way to navigate the environment:
One she soon replaces by regressing from present technology to the technology of primitive cave-dwellers:
But what really precipitates Sarah’s transformation is discovering Juno’s betrayal. The creatures drag Beth into their feeding room and, like Juno, leave her there to die; but she lives long enough to tell Sarah what Juno did to both of them. Last night in the cabin, Sarah mentioned something her husband liked to say, “Live each day,” and Marshall’s careful camera caught Beth hearing it. She remembered, and that’s why she knows the significance of the necklace she took from Juno when Juno wounded and abandoned her–a necklace which also reads, “Live each day.” Anguished beyond all measure, Sarah agrees to put Beth out of her misery, which she does with a rock. As soon as the deed is done, Sarah is attacked by one of the monsters, sending her into a pool of dark blood so deep it’s over her head completely:
If this spelunking expedition represents a gynecological dive into female reproductive system and female emotional experience, this pool–where Sarah grapples hand to hand with the only crawler in the film who is clearly, visibly female–is the menstruation metaphor. The scene connects Sarah’s depression to reproduction and death, recalling her dead daughter; she may well drown in this blood. Once more, primitivity is Sarah’s salvation, as she stabs the monstrous woman to death with a sharp length of bone.
Having killed, her face covered in blood, Sarah emerges from the death room a new person, silent and wild, moving like a crawler. Juno is taken aback:
Not long afterward, Sarah confronts Juno with the truth of both betrayals, showing Juno the necklace given to her by Sarah’s husband and taken from her by Beth. Juno is at long last speechless, left without lies, excuses, or apologies. Sarah’s judgement is to wound Juno with her axe and leave the woman to die alone with her despair. The screeching of the approaching crawlers echoes in the distance as Sarah moves deeper into the caverns.
The last few minutes of the film are dialogue-free, visually magnificent, and thematically harrowing. Making her way through the cavern, Sarah falls and hits her head again. When she awakens, night on the surface has become day, and the way out has revealed itself. There are few shots in horror or any other cinema as striking or as moving as this moment:
Bloodied but heartened, Sarah makes her way up a slope littered with bones toward the light. This is the shot that condenses everything the film has to say about grief and despair into one indelible image. Recovery is a process that may change you; it may be the hardest thing you ever have to do; you may have to reach your humanity again by crawling up a mountain of death. But your reward for doing so is the prospect of rebirth, of finding your way back to light and air and safety, to that first gasping breath of life itself:
Screaming and weeping from the horror of her experience, Sarah races down the mountain to the car and speeds away, getting miles between her and what she’s gone through. The camera replays shots from the previous morning, retracing her route away from that dark pit of despair, while the score’s grandness gives Sarah’s victory it’s due.
Startled by a passing truck, Sarah rolls down the window and vomits, a final regurgitation of her experience and unhappiness… but when she sits up again, she sees a ghostly apparition of Juno in the passenger seat. This last scare was where the film ended for American audiences; what followed was deemed too dark. On its own, it suggests that, even if Sarah managed to escape her past and repudiate her trauma, this experience will still continue to haunt her. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But the full ending truly completes what the film has to say about Sarah’s journey.
In the intended ending, Sarah awakens in the cave after hitting her head. Everything we’ve seen in the last few minutes–the slope of bones, the rebirth, driving away, all of it–was a dream. She is still in the cave, still in the dark, still half-crawler herself. And that’s when she sees her daughter again.
All throughout the film, even as the Juno plot inspired anger over the death and betrayal of Sarah’s husband, what seems to truly affect Sarah is the death of her child. Again and again, she sees her daughter holding out a birthday cake with five flickering candles, smiling to her mother, a vision of happiness Sarah can never again attain. By becoming monstrous enough to deal with Juno, Sarah may have solved the emotional wound her husband’s death left in her; but this experience in the caverns has not helped when it comes to the loss of her daughter. From that, the film argues, there is no escape, no exit, no return up to the surface, only a deeper and deeper descent. In the haunting final shot of the film, the camera pulls out as Sarah smiles warmly at the flickering lights on her daughter’s birthday candle–lights revealed to be nothing more than her torch. All light and hope is false, it says; there is no ending to despair. Or, as Dante wrote:
“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
Such characters, in color dim, I mark’d
Over a portal’s lofty arch inscribed.
Whearat I thus: “Master, these words import
Hard meaning.” He as one prepared replied:
“Here thou must all distrust behind thee leave;
Here be vile fear extinguish’d. We are come
Where I have told thee we shall see the souls
To misery doom’d…”
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because this election is its own infinite descent into despair. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.