Thoughts on the Descent

Posted on February 10, 2011


*****Spoilers Aplenty*****

Apart from the fact that I am easily frightened, one of the reasons why I don’t enjoy horror films, particularly creature films, is because there are hardly any people in them — only screaming victims. Regular creature films are a series of gruesome killings with zero thought given to the person who is being gnawed to death. The Descent, on the other hand, presents us with real people — six girlfriends who go on a caving expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. They are not your standard horror-film characters — they are brave, physically-fit, resourceful women who go river rafting, base jumping and spelunking on weekends.

I first saw the film about three years ago and saw it again recently. This film is one of the most terrifying and intelligent horror films in recent years. There is also plenty of blood and gore — enough to make Lucio Fulci weep with joy. But before I proceed any further, I will provide a brief synopsis to help you with the rest of the post.

The film opens with a brief prologue where we see three best friends, Sarah, Juno and Beth, on a river-rafting expedition. It is established right away that there is something going on between Juno and Sarah’s husband and that Beth is suspicious of them; but even before we fully realize what is happening, Sarah’s husband and her young daughter die in a horrific road accident. The accident leaves Sarah emotionally unstable and fragile, prone to vivid hallucinations of her dead daughter. A year later, Juno organizes a caving expedition along with three other girlfriends in the hope that Sarah will enjoy the experience and more importantly, to make up to Sarah by doing something good for her. However, Juno, in a misguided attempt to surprise them, lies to them and takes them to an unexplored cave system. Things go wrong almost immediately when a cave-in blocks the entrance and the girls are forced to find another way out. Desperate and on the verge of hysteria, the girls, nevertheless, brave on but soon find themselves attacked and outnumbered by pale, golem-like creatures who have perfectly evolved to live in the dark. One by one, the girls fall prey to the creatures, except for Beth who is accidentally killed by Juno. But before she dies, Beth tells Sarah about Juno’s betrayal. A traumatized Sarah has her revenge when she puts a climbing axe through Juno’s leg and leaves her to die while she climbs out of the cave. This is where the US version ends, but the UK version shows Sarah waking up in the cave — her escape was a hallucination. She is still trapped inside the cave, awaiting death.

Most great horror films have a brilliant setting. Mediocre films simply introduce a dark, locked room when it’s time for some killing. Apart from the first few scenes, the Descent is set in the pitch dark of an underground cave system. The only source of light is the headlight on the women’s helmets and the torches they carry. This could have resulted in the cave looking and feeling pretty much the same throughout the film; after all, a dark cave is just a dark cave. But the writer-director, Neil Marshall, ingeniously uses the different sources of light to brilliant effect. The cave chamber appears bathed in blood when the girls light up the red flare; the fluorescent green glow stick washes the characters in a sickly hue, the fiery orange of the torches suggest a primal rage and the night vision of the camcorder not only functions as a POV but reveals things hidden in the dark. In fact, the most terrifying shot in the film comes from the camcorder.

As would be evident from the synopsis, the most interesting aspect of the film is that it works on three different levels simultaneously. First, there is the high-tension, claustrophobic nature of the adventure. These girls crawl through some unbelievably narrow and dark passages; one of them rigs a line across a chasm by hanging free from the cave ceiling and hauling herself to the other side — both these sequences are heart-stopping. Trust me, you will forget to breathe.

Second, the relationship between the women especially, Sarah, Beth and Juno is fraught with unspoken hostility and guilt. The precise nature and extent of Juno’s relationship with Sarah’s husband remains unknown and this ambiguity is key to how we interpret their actions later. Beth is convinced of Juno betrayal and there are times when Juno’s actions appear to be motivated by guilt. But things aren’t as simple as that — Juno is someone who will never be satisfied by doing a simple thing; she wants it to be bigger and better. When she tells the group that she wants them to discover this cave system and name it after Sarah, no one believes her. One of girls acidly remarks: This is not caving. This is an ego-trip.

Finally, the metaphorical descent into madness. Regardless of which interpretation you favor (there are two possible interpretations: first, everything happens the way it is shown; second, the creatures are not real, Sarah kills her friends in her psychosis), it is Sarah’s descent into brutality and madness that makes the film so chilling and haunting. One of the real shocks comes when the film begins to identify Sarah with the creatures. In a shot that’s a direct reference to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Sarah emerges from a pool of blood and the sound of her breathing underwater is the same as the distinct sound that the creatures make.

Sarah’s transformation is horrifying because she started out as the weakest member in the team. She is treated as a child by the group — she gets stuck in a tunnel, she is scared of bats, and nobody believes her when she says she saw someone in the dark. When the creatures first attack the group, Sarah gets separated from the rest, falls down and loses consciousness. From this point on, I believe what we are seeing is both a descent into a more primitive self and a descent into madness. Her first task is to make fire by striking the carabiners that she has on her. Using the flame to find her way, she stumbles across a fatally injured Beth. Beth tells Sarah not to trust Juno and gives her Juno’s necklace as proof of her affair with Sarah’s husband. Sarah mercy-kills Beth before the creatures find her. Immediately after this, Sarah is attacked by a child, a female and a male creature and she kills them one by one. These killings are hard to accept at a literal level because no one in the group ever encounters a child or a female creature. It is too much of a coincidence that only Sarah encounters them. The way I see it, these killings function at a symbolic level — the destruction of the family right after she learns of her husband’s infidelity. In the final fight with the creatures, Sarah is no longer fighting the creatures to defend herself; instead, she kills them as a way of unleashing her fury. There is also something disturbing about how she kills them — she gouges out their eyes with her finger — it almost makes you feel sorry for the poor creatures! Of course, this too can be read symbolically — she is herself blind with rage and madness. Her next act, injuring Juno and leaving her to die, complicates how we feel about her.

Did Juno deserve the ‘punishment’ Sarah metes out to her? Throughout the film, Juno is presented as a flawed hero. Although her position is repeatedly challenged by others and all the blame is heaped on her head, she is very much the leader of the group. Juno was undoubtedly negligent in leading her friends into a potentially dangerous situation, but how far do we want to stretch the blame? Especially, when she is the only one in the group who risks her own life trying to find and protect the rest. She fights with the creature for Holly’s body while the others run off; she saves Rebecca when her own sister runs away; and, she goes back for Sarah when the rest give her up as dead. The film encourages our identification with Juno by giving her all the hero shots and frames. There are plenty of shots of Juno leading the team with a flame in her hand, there are low angle shots of her and the classic swinging the weapon or your gear on your shoulder shot. These are recognizable images and are always reserved for heroes in action films. Interestingly, Sarah gets all the villain shot. The hand coming out of the earth — the great visual motif in horror films is reserved for Sarah. Her posture and scream after she kills the family is again an unmistakable reference to the scream let out by the alien in Predator. Not surprisingly, her friends mistake her scream for the creature’s scream. The film even uses the Dutch angle on her during the final, wordless confrontation with Juno.

The Descent is also unique because it has an all-female cast, something you hardly notice until you think about it. The fact that Marshall doesn’t treat it as a big deal is to his credit. I like that he gives the girls a fair chance against the creatures — the very first fight between the creatures and Juno establishes that these creatures can be killed, provided the girls stick together and quickly find a way out of the cave.

Cronenberg said, “Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film.” The Descent is great precisely because it effortless combines the best of a gory, horror film and a subtle, psychological film.


PS: The film gained some amount of notoriety even before it released. The bus that was blown up as part of a coordinated series of attack on the London Transport System in 2005 carried a poster of the film, which proclaimed “Outright terror…bold and brilliant”.

The poster of the film on the bus became the most recognizable image of the bombing. But it wasn’t just the placement of the poster, but the storyline of the film that proved to be uncanny in the way it mirrored the events of that Thursday. The Descent is about a group of people who are trapped underground and face unrelenting terror. Talk about coincidence!

Posted in: Appreciation