British writer-director Neil Marshall contributes a worthy addition to the creature-horror genre. This 2005 film, starring Shauna MacDonald and Natalie Jackson Mendoza as the film’s two main protagonists Sarah and Juno, makes great use of claustrophobic space. If you are claustrophobic, there are moments here that will make you gasp for breath yourself. Further, The Descent avoids the trap of showing its creatures too often and too soon. Refreshing is the use of people in makeup and suits as the Crawlers rather than CGI effects. It lends the Crawlers and organic quality that would otherwise be lost. Certainly, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings might be an exception, but The Descent‘s relatively modest budget would have prohibited this sort of exacting special effect. The sparing use of the Crawlers reminded me a lot of the original Alien. We see flashes of something terrible – especially in the vent with Dallas – but not enough to think “Oh, that’s some guy in a suit.”
Story-wise, Marshall avoids many of the traditional pitfalls of the female-populated horror flick. Indeed, there is one human male in the movie and while his prior actions reflect on the movie’s present, he is otherwise absent as he dies in the opening scenes. What the viewer is left with is a group of women, each personalized just enough to make us care when they begin to get picked off one by one later. And these women are a diverse bunch – a thrill-seeker (Juno’s protege), a medical student and her sister, a widow who has lost a child (Sarah) as examples. Refreshingly, they do not fall out of their clothing while running from the Crawlers. Better yet, these women are competent. They come to the cave fully stocked and outfitted and they approach their spelunking with care for what they’re doing, and for one another. How and why it all goes wrong makes this more than a simple pick-em-off popcorn flick.
Sarah’s husband and young daughter died in a horrific accident 1 year prior to the spelunking adventure, an event which the viewer does see. Turns out the beautiful, adventurous, devil-may-care Juno was engaged in an affair with Sarah’s husband. In part to assuage her guilt and in part to “reunite” the resulting fractured group of friends, Juno plans an expedition to an American cave system. Only Juno has a secret: she hasn’t taken them to the cave system she promised, one well-mapped and explored. Instead, she takes them to new caves, in the misguided hope that they could explore it and “name it,” as she says. Her recklessness angers the group and puts them in the path of the Crawlers, which are a sort of devolved or evolved (depending on your view) human. The Crawlers have adapted to cave-dwelling, meaning they are blind, pallid, and navigate with bat-like sonar.
Sarah will come to find out about Juno’s affair with her husband, and here is the point at which the movie’s title takes on a double-meaning. Certainly, on a literal level, the group of women descend into the earth. But more than that, we see the depths to which people will reach when threatened or angered. Sarah and Juno especially become vicious killers of the Crawlers – bashing in heads, clawing out eyes, butchering with climbing axes. The viewer knows that at some point, Sarah and Juno will square-off against each other. And they do, and it is brilliant. Marshall does not have these two women screaming or catfighting. Indeed, their confrontation near the film’s end is devoid of dialogue. Sarah holds up a necklace of Juno’s, proof of the adultery. Sarah’s quiet fury, and her subsequent choice to maim Juno’s leg, leaving her to be torn to pieces by the Crawlers, is at once heartless and relatable. What, Marshall forces us to think, would any of us do if we lost a spouse and then came to discover that he or she had committed adultery with a trusted friend.
I enjoyed Marhshall’s use of birth and motherhood related imagery in ways which unnerve the viewer. Sarah loses a child at the beginning of the movie – that loss haunts her even moreso than the loss of her husband. Yet when necessary, she bludgeons a young Crawler to death, then does battle with its anguished mother. The film itself takes place in a cave system, certainly womb-like. When Sarah believes she has escaped, and we see her bloody hand burst out into the sunshine, it feels like a birth of sorts. Yet so much pain and suffering has occurred that it hardly feels like a new beginning.
A final note – The Descent has been showing recently on the Sci-fi Channel. If you’ve seen that version, you’ve seen the American ending. The original British ending, deemed too bleak for American audiences, is by far the superior ending to the story. That I won’t spoil for you. If the version you saw ends with Sarah “waking up” from her dream of escape and immediately cuts to black while focusing on her reaction, you’ve seen the American ending.
I love a good creature feature and The Descent certainly delivers.