The Descent: Women in Horror

When Neil Marshall’s directorial debut Dog Soldiers (2002), a half comedic piece about werewolves in Scotland, became a hit, he was, of course, encouraged to do it all over again. That’s how you make money. Marshall was reluctant though, not really wanting to be known as a horror director. That is, until he hit upon a realization, something that could make this new prospective horror project stand out: an all-female cast. He was right. As often as horror movies get whittled down to a female sole survivor, if not a Final Girl, all-female casts are pretty rare. Dog Soldiers itself was a sausage party. Marshall wasn’t looking to make some kind of panty-peeking chicksploitation picture though, and his new project, originally called The Dark, eventually renamed The Descent, would abandon slumber party tropes to follow an adventure-seeking group of women into places any gender would fear to tread. The result is an almost-perfect horror movie that digs deep to deliver a group of smart, cool, highly-capable friends to the bottom of their worst nightmares. 

The Descent begins with chasing waterfalls…not like that. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her friends Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) are whitewater rafting, while Sarah’s husband Paul and daughter Jessica cheer them on from shore. It’s extreme good times, suitable for a gum commercial or a Hallmark movie, and the women emerge sopping and laughing and happy. Afterward though, there’s just enough storytelling-by-significant looks to let us in on Paul and Juno’s very guilty vibe. Maybe someone is chasing waterfalls after all. What’s more, Beth notices, and she urges Sarah to go on ahead with her husband and daughter. Is she going to confront Juno, or offer her a shoulder? Is she just trying to avoid a scene? We don’t get to see and soon it will be forgotten, as on the ride back to their hotel, Sarah thinks to ask Paul why he seems so distant. Paul hesitates, turns…and then a Final Destination scene strikes, cleanly killing Paul and Jessica in a single stroke. Sarah wakes in the hospital from dreams of her daughter’s birthday, a day that will never come again, already the sole survivor before the movie’s even really begun.

The story picks up some time later, long enough that, while Sarah understandably pales at any mention of children or memory of her dead husband, she’s clearly moving on with life. She and Beth are driving to a reunion expedition with their friends. and while it’s not the first time she’s getting back together with them all, this time is Juno’s idea. They’re going caving in North Carolina, which is fairly exotic for the mainly Scottish group. We do have more ladies joining the fun this time, old friends and a new one, too: Juno’s brash Irish protegee Holly, who is skeptical about this caving trip as being too tame and touristy. Don’t worry, Juno promises Holly. It will be a real adventure. And even Juno, who is keeping her own terrible, stupid surprise back from the others, doesn’t realize how true that is going to be.

So I’ll tell you what Juno didn’t tell anyone: the women think they’re going to Boreham Caverns, a well-explored system that Juno and a couple of the others have some knowledge of, and Juno has ostensibly filed a flight plan–details of their planned route so they can be rescued if anything goes wrong. But Juno has actually taken them to a different, unexplored system nearby. That’s right. Experienced adventurer Juno is deliberately leading a group of women who think they’ve just signed up for a perfectly safe underground adventure–one that most people would still nope out of out of sheer atavistic dread–into a pocket of the unknown deep, deep down in the earth. When she’s forced to reveal this to the others–things predictably do not go to plan–she explains she wanted to do this to fix her relationship with Sarah. Together they can claim this cave system; they can even name it for Sarah. And Sarah, fresh from getting stuck in a hole and nearly crushed by a cave-in, is not particularly touched.

Now, many, if not most, horror movies require someone to be stupid at some point. Signs dismissed, strange sounds ignored or maybe strange sounds investigated, crazy old-timer’s warnings laughed off. Quite often, a stubborn man will refuse to give credit to his girlfriend’s intuition. Doomed student filmmaker Heather spent most of The Blair Witch Project (1999) insisting they weren’t lost. So, yes, Juno is indeed incredibly stupid here, almost enough to eject you from the movie, but I do want to give Marshall and actress Natalie Mendoza credit for making her actions personally consistent. I mean, all we really know about Juno going into the caves is that she’s a bold leader, weird about her relationship with Sarah, and somewhat shady, so check, check, and check. But it’s more than that. 

Sarah doesn’t know about the affair, but her shared loss with Juno is still a seeping wound between them. This insane plan says a lot about Juno, her over-confidence in her own abilities and her untrustworthiness, but it also testifies to her grief, to her trauma. “We all lost something in that accident,” she retorts to Beth, who is furious that Juno would take such a risk with a still-healing Sarah. After all, who would do something like this? Especially an experienced climber, jumper, caver, someone who knows what can go wrong? Someone half mad with unresolved grief would do this. Someone who not only lost a lover, but her friend, the friend she betrayed, and she can’t find a way to be honest about any of that. We go into this part of the story expecting Sarah to be broken, understanding the descent of the title is literal, sure, but also metaphorical for the one so recently touched by death, still dreaming of her daughter’s birthday. But Juno has been grieving, too–at a distance and in secret. Can you imagine how hard that would be? Can you imagine how stupid it could make you?

One of the strengths of this movie for me is actually how events play out with Marshall rarely interpolating an unforced error on the part of the women, Juno’s insane hubris aside. Mistakes made–Holly rushing ahead into what looks like daylight, Juno trying to climb across a crevasse to save rope and accidentally injuring Rebecca when she falls–are understandable ones. I appreciate how realistic and natural it is that Rebecca, the medical student, dashes off a whole big list of terrible things that can happen underground as they approach the cave entrance: “You can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural.” They can and to some extent, they do, but there are no weak links here. This isn’t a movie that depends on the weakness of its characters to get where it’s going. In fact, it depends on their strength to make it as far as they have to go. Weaker, more cowardly, less cooperative people would never get all the way down to the flesh-eating monsters.

Once they get to them, the creatures themselves are excellent antagonists–slimy, blind, hissing, Nosferatu-shaped things that skitter up walls as easily as insects and rend and tear like raptors. Their weakness is also their strength, as blindness is no disadvantage in the dark except to the sighted. The friends catch on to the way the creatures rely on echolocation quickly, but not quickly enough for everyone to live through it. 

I appreciate, too, that while it’s impossible to relate to the monsters, Marshall took care to show at least one female of the species, pursuing Sarah after she stomps a child version to death. Sarah faces off against her while baptized in the blood soup of the creatures’ charnel pit, and after that–well, after that, Sarah isn’t quite the same person anymore. “The worst thing that could ever happen to you has already happened, and you survived it,” Beth tells Sarah, desperately trying to calm her down when she gets stuck in a passage. Beth was not wrong. But Beth never thought she would need to beg Sarah to bash her head in before she could be eaten alive either. The fact that Sarah faces a mother after she’s forced to kill her friend, after her friend finally tells her the truth about Paul and Juno and that Juno–again accidentally–dealt her a fatal blow only to leave her behind, is telling. In killing the mother of the creatures, Sarah might well be killing her own maternal instinct, her own protective empathy, just to survive. In the final act, having lost everyone else, Sarah will face Juno with furious, righteous selfishness.

I both don’t want to and need to talk about the sequel here. I don’t want to because I feel the first film, with its original ending, is as much of the story we need, but I need to because it isn’t as much story as we’re given, and that’s important because the meat of the first movie resides in Sarah and Juno’s relationship. Not to stuff the others in refrigerators, but the journey into the underworld, literal and metaphorical, is to confront Juno and Sarah’s grief. The sequel also appends redemption for Sarah in much the same terms that she lost her humanity at the end of the first movie. Don’t get me wrong. I really like the sequel. Marshall didn’t write or direct, but he still had a hand in as an executive producer, and Jon Harris’s follow-up does a pretty good job of finding even more ways of making the cramped, creature-haunted dark horrible. Some of it is subtraction by addition though, and the inclusion of a big broad stereotype southern sheriff to goose the plot along grates as he forces Sarah–alive and amnesiac–back into those damn caves to find Juno, who is apparently a senator’s daughter. Okay, movie.

The hero of the sequel isn’t Sarah, who begins as a traumatized blank cartridge and, once returned to the darkness, transforms back into a taut, grim survivor, much in the mold of Alien’s Ellen Ripley. It’s not Juno–spoiler alert–discovered very much alive and almost feral herself in the aftermath of Sarah abandoning her at the end of the first film. Instead it’s Rios (Krysten Cummings), the sheriff’s deputy who comes along to help coax and wrangle Sarah as they force her to search for her friends. Her boss is a macho, red-faced, bellicose ass who insists on taking a gun underground and openly suspects Sarah of murdering the other women; Rios tempers that with sympathy and understanding and calls home to her daughter. Witnessing another mother’s love is the only thing that flows blood back to Sarah’s heart, even as the creatures rip apart members of the search party in front of them. The sequel gives Sarah and Juno a chance to forgive each other; it also gives them a chance to be forgiven by the audience, reclaiming the very human virtue and the very female expectation of self-sacrifice. If I have an issue with that, it’s only that I’m not sure they needed it. 

The Descent is a movie that will burn calories. It is harrowing. The setting alone is devastatingly effective. As I said, the atavistic dread is there for you as soon as they pan out to the destination–a crack in the earth that goes down for miles. And the first little flaw in the rock they have to inchworm through? Forget it. I’ll stay here trapped in the first chamber forever, thanks, licking the rock walls for nourishment, singing They Might Be Giants songs in an increasingly pathetic tremolo. Of course, it’s secluded, too, way out in the sparsely populated hill country of the Appalachians. Even if anyone did know where they were–and they don’t! Good job, Juno!–they would be waiting a long time for a rescue. The film builds and builds and builds the tension, layer upon layer, using tight spaces, high places, the dark to bury its heroines alive, earning them skinned hands and broken bones, exhausting bodies and nerves, and only then, well over halfway through, then they find out they’re on the menu. But even then, that’s not as bad as it gets. The final horror waiting in The Descent, what elevates it from being an effective scary movie to the almost mythic resonance of Alien or Predator, is what it makes Sarah and Juno into before it’s done with them, as is the case with so many women in horror. Confronted with the worst thing that could ever happen, a woman might be a sole survivor. She might be a Final Girl. But for Sarah and Juno, the first thing she is going to be is another monster in the dark.

The Descent and The Descent 2 are streaming on Peacock. Angela suggests you look for the version of The Descent with the original ending. Happy birthday, Jessie!

You couldn’t get Angela that far underground if David Bowie were down there singing with Muppets.

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