Friday, April 17, 2009

Looking Back at THE DESCENT

In a recent poll of The Top 25 Horror Films of the Modern Era, the gold prize went to Neil Marshall’s 2005 film THE DESCENT. I couldn’t agree more. For my money, this is the best all-around horror film of the past decade. It’s everything that a good horror film should be: traditional yet surprising, subtle yet gruesome, intimate yet exhilarating.

It starts out with a historical event that sets up the main character arc. This has become a common approach in contemporary horror movies. In much the way that slasher movies began with a historical event that established the killer’s motives, this opening establishes the heroine’s motives. Sarah (played by Shauna Macdonald) is struggling to bounce back from the loss of her husband and young daughter in a freak accident. Psychologically, she’s already on unstable ground when her girlfriends convince her to go spelunking with them in an uncharted cave in the Appalachian Mountains. No doubt they (and she) are thinking the experience will be a good form of therapy, allowing her to re-engage with the living and rediscover her sense of adventure in life.

Of course we know that horrible things are in store for her, and writer/director Marshall acknowledges our expectations by tipping his hat to the film’s influences. As the characters wander into the woods – attempting to re-capture the magic of their white-water rafting adventure – one is reminded of DELIVERANCE. Juno (played by Natalie Mendoza) is the Burt Reynolds character, challenging nature with masculine bravado. The characters spend their first night in the wilderness in an old rustic cabin that looks like it was ripped straight out of THE EVIL DEAD. For horror fans, this hints that we have more to fear than hillbillies. Ash and his friends in THE EVIL DEAD confronted an ancient, primal evil that eventually took possession of their souls.

Soon after, the characters begin their descent into a seemingly bottomless cave. Before long, it’s hard not to think of this as a journey into the mouth of Hell itself – but the film’s imagery is never explicitly religious. Rather, Marshall draws his inspiration from the film ALIEN. (I also notice some similarities to STEPHEN KING’S GRAVEYARD SHIFT, but I’m going to overlook them because that film wasn’t executed anywhere near as well as ALIEN or THE DESCENT.) In both films, the characters slowly make their way through a series of dark, narrow cavities. There was something strangely organic about the other-worldly catacombs in ALIEN, and one gets that same feeling in THE DESCENT. The moistness of the rocks might make one think that the characters are crawling around inside the body of some giant living creature. (Marshall suggests a more Freudian interpretation in his DVD commentary.) Because the walls are lit only by constantly-moving flashlight beams, the entire cave seems to move and pulsate before our eyes.

The unreliable lighting is perhaps the greatest strength of the film. The filmmaker understands that we are all instinctively afraid of the dark. (In fact, the original shooting title of the film was "The Dark.") ALIEN operated the same way – telling a futuristic sci-fi story as if it were an old ghost story produced by Val Lewton. It builds suspense simply, through darkness and silence. Unlike the Lewton films, however, ALIEN draws back the curtain in the third act, revealing the monster. THE DESCENT is structured the same way. It skillfully manipulates use through the use of darkness and shadow, all the while developing our gothic heroine Sarah and her hyper-masculine counterpart Juno. The choice of location goes a long way to enhancing the believability of the story, and therefore the characters.

While watching THE DESCENT for the first time, I remembered a documentary I’d recently seen called TOUCHING THE VOID – about a pair of hikers who got stranded in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. One of them fell into a giant crevice and broke his leg. His climbing partner, and close friend, had to leave him for dead in order to save himself. There is an absolutely chilling scene in which the fallen character confronts the reality that he’s going to die alone in the darkness, where his body will never be discovered. I remembered that scene when one of the supporting characters in THE DESCENT falls into a crevice and suffers a compound fracture. That’s it, I thought, she’s never going to get out of that cave. After everything the characters have gone through to get where they are at that point, we the viewers have no delusion that they will be able to go back the way they came.

For me, that was the scariest moment in the film. I am not as horrified by the prospect of dying as I am by the prospect of dying slowly, alone, unprepared, in the darkness where no one will ever find you or know what happened to you. For me, that cave is hell. It cuts the characters off from civilization, from everything familiar, isolates them one by one, threatens them with the prospects of eternal darkness, suffocation, dehydration, starvation, drowning… and more. (We haven’t even gotten to the monsters yet… but it’s tough for them to compete with these imagined horrors.) When I saw that poor girl’s bone sticking out of her leg, I cringed… and not just because of the thought of excruciating pain. For most of us, our bodies are sufficiently linked to our sense of identity for us to have an overwhelming fear of mutilation, dismemberment, being eaten alive. The greater fear comes not from the pain but from the prospect of having our life – or humanity – taken away from us. Knowing that you’re going to die soon, and that you’re probably going to die in an unimaginably horrific way, brings out a normally-hidden aspect of our humanity. We become animals who want to survive at all costs, because we cannot cope with the alternative possibility. Primal instincts overtake everything else. This is what happens in the third act of THE DESCENT.

The cave-dwelling “crawlers” that attack in the third act remind me a bit of the rage-infected zombies in 28 DAYS LATER and even more of the mutant vampires in BLADE 2, but I tend to think of them more as uncivilized humans. In my mind, they are what humans might have evolved into if our evolution had been confined to an underground cave with no sunlight and (because vegetarians would have a tough time in a world without sunlight) very little food. Faced with the certainty of being hunted, killed and eaten, Sarah and Juno quickly revert to primal survival instincts. Juno, however, was already in touch with those instincts and has had time to integrate them into her civilized mentality. Sarah, who has been teetering on the edge of the void since the beginning of the film (the first time she lost the people who meant the world to her) becomes a savage.

The character of Sarah is an interesting variation on the slasher movie’s “final girl.” She starts off as the stereotypical gothic heroine – not exactly virginal, but with the hyper-awareness that one associates with the virgin in slasher movies. Because she is so sensitive to her surroundings, Sarah is the first to sense the presence of the crawlers in the cave. But she also has a heightened mothering instinct, because of what happened to her daughter at the beginning of the film. When the crawlers attack, she tries to help her friends – in contrast to Juno, who leaves her friends for dead in an attempt to save herself. It is the loss of those she’s trying to protect, and the betrayal of Juno, that transforms Sarah into something like a monster herself.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

This sets up an ending that’s clearly inspired by the modern-day classics of American horror. In fact, there are two endings. The original UK ending proposes that Sarah never physically escapes the cave. She dreams a scenario in which she crawls out into the light and drives away like a madwoman, but then wakes up in the cave again. Neil Marshall calls this “THE THING ending,” noting the similarity to the end of John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece. The character is alive, but with no hope for the future. The US theatrical version of THE DESCENT ends sooner, when Sarah is driving away and the bloody-eyed ghost of Juno appears next to her. Sarah screams, credits roll. Marshall calls this his “TEXAS CHAINSAW ending,” noting similarities to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece. In that film, Marilyn Burns escapes the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface but, as we watch her laughing maniacally in the back of an escaping truck, we understand that she has gone insane. (Hooper himself has said that he originally wanted to make a sequel that starts with the character in a morgue, where her attendants convince her that she is already dead… I’m sort of hoping that this is the jumping-off point for the upcoming THE DESCENT 2.) In the “TEXAS CHAINSAW” ending of THE DESCENT, Sarah physically escapes the cave, but when Juno's ghost appears next to her, we realize that she never psychologically escapes. Her worst fear is realized: she has lost her humanity.

Marshall has said that he prefers the former ending; I prefer the latter, because it is the true “savage cinema” ending. Modern American horror classics like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES present us with the grimmest truth that a horror film can offer: We are the monster. THE THING ending is blindly nihilistic; the TEXAS CHAINSAW ending is purposefully nihilistic. It poses the question: What would you be if everything you knew and loved was taken away? Great horror films, like THE DESCENT, carry a message:

When you enter the darkness, the darkness can enter you.


  1. Fantastic review, Joe. A great read. That you were able to resurrect the second U.S. ending and make it seem meaningful was doubly brilliant.


  2. Anonymous5/24/2009

    Well written review, but I am afraid I do not agree. Myself, and several friends, all went to see The Descent as we had heard it was, and I quote, "one of the scariest movies made". I have no idea which version of said movie they say, but it was definately not the same boring, by the numbers, teenage sleep over movie we saw.

    Everything from the direction, photography, effects etc were very ordinary. Not actually bad, just so mediocre that they do not stand out from the other hundred similar themed movies.

    Even the creatures were boring and lacked menace - they just looked crap. The all girl emsemble just annoyed. The characters were as two dimension as any Star trek ensign (you know, the one that gets killed 30 seconds into the episode to set the scene). And the story was literally non-existant.

    Don't get me wrong, this movie is not terrible (see The Cave for a similar movie that IS terrible) but it is FAR from good, and I have no idea how you can even mention the great Ridley Scott sci fi flick in the same review.

    It seems that todays horror flicks are made for kids, the mentally challenged and the kids who are mentally challenged, possibly the closest to a decent horror movie in the last decade was The Mist, which was fairly ordinary but had a good atmosphere.

    To anyone reading this - save your time and see a real horror flick, The Thing still impresses after over 25 years, Jacobs Ladder is as creepy as ever and even Evil Dead has its moments.

    Leave The Descent where it belongs - rotting at the bottom of a dark hole.

  3. Anonymous -

    Everyone's entitled to their own opinion. I agree with you about THE THING and the vastly underrated JACOB'S LADDER, though I'm not quite as enthusiastic about THE MIST. What scares us as individual viewers has a lot to do with personal experience, including the movies we've already seen. I've seen my fair share of horror movies, old and new, and was thrilled to find that THE DESCENT worked for me on both a visceral and intellectual level.

    As for the last ten years: I'm not convinced that horror movies in general are getting worse... The late 70s / early 80s may still be the high watermark for the genre (at least in America), but I don't believe the 2000s are the lowest. I think a lot of horror fans today are simply less impressionable than they were 20 or 30 years ago.