The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened.
—Juno (Natalie Mendoza)
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) first appears in The Descent looking triumphant. She and her two best friends, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid), are rafting through a bracing white-water onslaught. They laugh, they gasp, they work as a giddy team, all athletic and pleased with themselves and each other.
Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, Myanna Buring, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll
US theatrical: 4 Aug 2006 (General release)
Of course, it can’t last. Sarah lives in a horror movie, and the happy introduction is designed to make you feel worry when things go terribly wrong. This happens within the first two minutes: when her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and young daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) greet the women as they finish their not-so-wild ride, he’s grumpy. Much as Sarah tries to get him talking, he stares straight ahead as they drive, bothered by something he won’t name. Point being, apparently, that it’s hard to be a woman with friends and a life outside your marriage when you’re a lithe young woman living inside a horror movie.
Mere seconds later, a freak, frank, and bloody car accident wipes out the family. Sole survivor Sarah wakes in a hospital, all mashed up and bruised, and imagines, as you do, briefly, that what’s come before is a nightmare. But no. This girl’s nightmare hasn’t even begun.
Equal parts yucky, scary, and delirious, the rest of The Descent comprises that nightmare. This second feature by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) knows what it’s about, both its generic limits and your knowledge of those limits. It doesn’t try to trick you, but instead delivers the usual tension-building effects (dark spaces, hurried breathing) and plot points (plucky girls menaced by oozy mutant monsters), and grim sound effects (breaking bones, ripping flesh).
Sarah’s abrupt change in circumstance makes her especially vulnerable to all these effects. And so, as your-stand-in-survivor-last-girl, she is soon set to her sorting out her internal demons while also grappling with conveniently arising external versions of same. These show up, as the film’s title suggests, inside a cave. “One year later,” a title Sarah that in order to move on from her despair, she needs to go on another outdoor adventure. This time, they bring along more friends, so that they number six altogether, each team member slightly differentiated from the others, if only so you can keep track of who dies in what order.
First they spend a night in a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, in order to designate these differences: spunky-punky queer base jumper Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and goodhearted Scandinavian sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), the group’s only professional climber, and Sam (MyAnna Buring). They drink beers and smoke a couple of cigarettes, enjoying the night air before the next day’s adventure. Sarah jolt-awakes in the wee-hours, still guilting over the accident that changed everything, so you remember this is her personal story, even as she’s surrounded by others doing too much talking and posturing.
This interiority makes the next day’s initial scares seem as though they might be in Sarah’s mind. She makes her way through the tight tunnels roped into a thin line with the other, more enthusiastic women, their flashlights barely penetrating the blackness before them, the walls wet and the (abstract and concrete) future rather unknowable. When a tunnel cave-in blocks their way out (as must happen), Sarah can’t help but pursue a whispery, plaintive child’s voice, maybe a cavey-wind or maybe a ghost that only she can hear. As she keeps wandering off to look for the source of this noise, her friends keep pulling her back to the group. They worry about her, looking so pale. They really worry about her when she insists that during one of these solo excursions, she’s seen “something.”
Because you sort of see this something too (and most importantly, because you know the horror movie drill), you tend to believe her when her friends don’t. You also expect they’ll pay dearly for their disbelief. It doesn’t take long, though, before the movie lines up all the girls to acknowledge Sarah’s vision: the something appears suddenly, then reveals itself to be part of a pack (they’re called “crawlers” in the credits). The monsters are lumpy and white-grey and crawl along cave walls. And they’re not just lumbering dark-dwellers, but, taking a cue from the speedster types populating zombie movies these days, they’re quick and ferocious, blind, gnarly creatures with fearsome teeth and very bendable backbones.
All this is pretty much par for the generic course, as is the fact that the climbers have to go down in order to get out. But if The Descent‘s storyline and metaphors are regular, its excess is provocative. Certainly, it thematizes the obvious trust and betrayal questions, as the climbers—at least as long as they’re together—must work through these concepts by definition. It also provides the sort of explicit, noisy gore requisite for the new so-called horror-porn, visceral and grisly, occasionally humorous, and fixed on making viewers pay.
But it does something else too. Exaggerating the usual horror movie gambit (pretty girls in danger), The Descent invites you to reconsider your generic expectations. As the girls play all the variously gendered roles (even one of the beasties has visible, if flaccid, breasts), they’re as aggressive, selfish, mean, and courageous as any male characters have been in similar situations.
At the same time, Sarah is something of an unexpected hero. Believing herself terminally weakened by her loss (of identity as well as family), she finds in herself an unexpected ferocity and nasty determination to endure. But her Last Girly gumption is almost more costly than her loss.
The Descent—Theatrical Trailer