Hello, all! I just finished the 2005 horror movie The Descent, directed by Neil Marshall. I’m the type of person who thinks that activities which create unnecessary danger, such as cave diving, deep-sea diving, skydiving, any type of diving, etc, are stupid. The Descent is a film about smart women who stupidly decide to go cave diving. Chaos, death, and betrayal ensues. And through it all I kept thinking:
Plot Summary: The story begins with the three central characters white-water rafting. The main character, Sarah (Shauna McDonald), brought her daughter Jessica and her husband Paul to watch. The leader of the expedition, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), shares an intimate conversation with Paul before they leave, which Beth (Alex Reid) notices and Sarah doesn’t. As they’re driving home, a distracted Paul collides into an oncoming vehicle, killing himself and Jessica. Sarah survives, but is traumatized by the event.
One year passes and the three original women meet up in North Carolina to go caving. Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) join Sarah, Beth and Juno on the trip. Holly complains that the planned caving trip will be too easy, so unbeknownst to the other women, Juno takes them to an undiscovered cave system.
The women are at first in awe of the beautiful cave, but disaster quickly strikes. Sarah gets trapped in a tiny crawlspace and loses their second rope bag. Beth helps free her, but only just in time to escape the collapsing tunnel, which blocks their only exit. Juno tells them about switching their plans and explains that the cave has never before been explored. The women are furious and push ahead with less caution than before, which causes Holly to fall down a hole and break her leg. While the the other women are splinting her leg, Sarah sees a shadowy creature watching them.
They are attacked by cave creatures in the next big cave opening. Holly’s throat is ripped out. Juno fights off two cave crawlers in an attempt to drag Holly to safety, but in her rage, she accidentally stabs Beth and leaves her there to die. The women are all scattered now, with Juno and Sarah on their own and Rebecca and Sam together.
Rebecca and Sam have a few encounters with the creatures, but discover that they are blind and can only hunt using sound and smell. Juno becomes adept at fighting the creatures. She chases down a creature and kills it before it can attack Rebecca and Sam. Juno tells them of markings that she found which point to a different entrance and insists that they find Sarah before leaving. Meanwhile, Sarah finds the dying Beth, who tells her that Juno stabbed her and that Juno had an affair with Paul before he died.
Beth begs Sarah to kill her before the creatures eat her. After leaving the now dead Beth, Sarah kills several other creatures and has a violent struggle with a female creature in a blood-filled pool. Juno, Rebecca, and Sam search for an exit, but find only a large crevasse. Sam tries to cross the crevasse but is attacked and killed by a creature. Rebecca is also dragged away by a creature.
Juno and Sarah meet up once again. They find the second entrance to the cave and kill the three creatures blocking it. Sarah asks Juno if she saw Beth die, to which Juno nods yes. Incensed by the perceived betrayal, Sarah wounds Juno and leaves her to fend off the remaining creatures alone. I watched the American version, which ends with Sarah escaping and driving away, but the original British version has a much bleaker ending, which has Sarah hallucinating an escape, only to wake and find herself trapped in the cave forever.
My take: The movie has a terrifying premise. Even if you’re not claustrophobic, being basically buried alive in a dark cave is an undeniably horrible proposition. The first half of the film bolsters this fear beautifully. The caves, built by production designer Simon Bowles, are filled with craggy crevasses, sharp ledges, slimy rocks, sludgy pools, and there’s minimal light besides the characters’ flashlights and headlamps. The claustrophobic atmosphere is overwhelming, especially in the scenes where the women have to squeeze through thin tunnels. It’s not difficult for the audience to empathize with Sarah as she frantically struggles to free herself from the first tunnel. We can all relate to the feeling of being trapped, a fear which Marshall capitalizes on throughout the first act.
Equally as terrifying as the tunnels, the first act includes a harrowing scene over a large crevasse. The tunnels symbolize imprisonment, the crevasse symbolizes the paralyzing fear of the dark unknown. Marshall balances both fears well and intensifies them with themes of desperation and helplessness. The pinnacle of these fears is realized when Holly brutally breaks her leg. The gore is graphic, the fear is palpable, and suddenly, the women realize just how much danger they’re in.
And then the creatures ruin the movie. The first glimpse of the Gollum-like cave dwellers is suspenseful, but once the creatures are visible, they’re no longer scary. The situation is grave enough without adding the threat of blood-thirsty monsters. Personally, I think it would have been scarier if the women had been truly trapped in the caves and facing their inevitable death than just having to escape from lame cave monsters.
The second half of the movie is a textbook slasher. The women are killed one by one, and though I rooted for some of them, it was obvious that the final girl would be Sarah, as she was the only character given any characterization. When the creatures were introduced, any other threats disappeared. The women no longer had to worry about breaking an ankle or falling down a crevasse; both Juno and Sarah dove headfirst into pools of water without a second thought. Perhaps if the creatures had acted as an additional threat instead of the primary one, the second half of the movie would’ve worked, but when they were introduced, all semblance of realism was thrown out the window.
I also had a problem with the characters. Neil Marshall supposedly casted women with different accents so that they would be easier to tell apart, which shows that even he had little faith in his powers of characterization. But even the myriad of different nationalities (Juno is American, Shauna and Holly are Scottish, Beth is British, Sam is Swedish and Rebecca is Dutch) doesn’t help distinguish the characters. Sarah is the only woman with a background and Juno is the only woman with any purpose or motive. The other characters are unremarkable.
Wikipedia explains his decisions like so: “To avoid making [the female characters] clichéd, he solicited basic advice from his female friends. He explained the difference [between an all female and all male cast], “The women discuss how they feel about the situation.” He also gave the characters different accents to enable the audience to tell the difference between the women and to establish a more “cosmopolitan feel.”
Oh boy. Where do I begin? You can throw together a bunch of women and call it diversity, but you have to give them something in common. How do these women even know each other? They have no backstory, no set-up, and barely any real dialogue about their relationships. And what does Marshall mean when he says that “women discuss how they feel about the situation?” Is he implying that if the cast were men, they would face every challenge with silent stoicism?
The women are capable, but they’re really underwritten. There is no emotional punch to accompany the visceral scares. It made no sense to me why Beth would tell Sarah that Juno had an affair with Paul when she’s DYING from a slash to the throat. Is that supposed to be women discussing how they feel about the situation? That seems to me like something Marshall thought that women would do in that situation, when a real woman dying from blood loss would probably find year-old betrayals to be irrelevant. In the same vein, it was nonsense for Sarah to turn on Juno, her only ally, because Juno slept with her husband.
I think Marshall confused “feelings” for actual emotions. I didn’t relate to any of the characters; despite his best wishes, they were stereotypes. The movie ultimately couldn’t get past such underwritten characters, and adding Appalachian Gollum caused the movie to cave in on itself in the second act.
Final Consensus: The Descent could be a great horror movie, but it’s ruined by a predictable second act and underdeveloped characters. A better film would have stuck with themes of claustrophobia and isolation, but The Descent chose to rely on cheap monster scares. Rating: 5/10 Appalachian Gollums
Instead of making cave monsters that resemble Gollum, they should’ve used the real Gollum. I’ve always thought that he was the scariest part of LOTR. Can you imagine him stalking the girls, whispering for his precious? That’s giving me the heebie jeebies.