The Descent: A feminist turn in modern horror
Slow-building suspense, a claustrophobia-inducing setting, and well-executed scares come together with a powerful all-female cast to give birth to an outstanding piece of early ‘00s horror.
Directed by British filmmaker Neil Marshall, The Descent follows Sarah, who a year after losing her husband and child in a car accident, meets her friends to go spelunking in an undiscovered range in the Appalachians, only to find themselves facing an army of monster-like creatures who live in the dark depths of the caves.
Going into The Descent, you never expect what you’re about to see. I, for one, did not know whether it was going to be a supernatural film or a mere survival story. Well, it was neither. I think the choice to go with half-human, half-monster creatures was one of the best decisions ever made in horror. Not only does it make for an unprecedented thrilling film, but it also gives the movie a differentiating factor that makes it stand out from the endless pool of ghost films that were released in the early ‘00s, almost on a daily basis.
By all means, The Descent is a low-budget gem of a film; a B movie done right. The film has great pacing, and that makes for a perfect mix of suspense and adventure. The first half of it is slow-paced and anxiety-inducing, with several claustrophobic scenes that will make you feel like you can’t breathe. Then, it builds up to an action-packed ride of thrills, gruesome fights and effective scares. It all comes together to make way for a particular type of horror; one that is extremely and constantly intense, from beginning to end.
But on top of its originality and accomplished story, what stands out the most in The Descent is its all-female cast. Here you have, in 2006, a group of smart, quick-thinking, fearless women who prove you can have a great horror movie relying entirely on strong female performances. They’re all badass, both individually and collectively. They fight those creatures to the death, they find smart solutions in the most unexpected of circumstances, and they do it all without ever needing the help of a man. Goodbye, whiny damsels in distress. Hello, female heroes. Moreover, I think this is particularly relevant for the context in which the movie was released. If it were done today, maybe it would not be as game-changing as it was back in the early ‘00s, but for the time it was absolutely amazing to see a story made up of only female characters.
And, of course, everything materializes in the film’s final girl: Sarah. This apparently ordinary, run of the mill widow, who shows she has more fight in her than you could’ve possibly imagined. She outsmarts and outruns the creatures in more than one occasion. She’s quick on her feet, not afraid to get her hands dirty and get the job done. She fights anyone who gets in their way, and she’s even a b*tch when she has to. Her character develops from grieving widow to absolute kickass, giving birth to another one of the most iconic final girls in recent horror history.
The creatures, who have come to be referred to as “the crawlers”, are a semi-human species that, as one of the characters explains after watching them closely, have mutated and evolved into their actual form as a way of surviving in the caves. But aside from this conclusion that the characters themselves get to -which, I might add, exemplifies just how smart these women are-, we do not get a lot more answers as to where they come from or if they actually used to be human. The thing is, that is not really relevant to the story. The movie is not about the creatures. It’s about the main character, Sarah, facing her demons, overcoming her fears and having to literally fight for her life in a moment when she feels that she has no reason to live.
At this point is where the movie gets a surprising element of psychological horror which will in turn be at the very core of the story. You see, going into the caves, Sarah hears and sees things: a child’s laugh, her daughter sitting in front of her from behind… essentially, things that mess with her head. What I believe is that this isn’t just placed there as a resource to amplify the suspense, and rather than being secondary to the monsters, it is actually quite important, even when left entirely open for interpretation.
This gets a particular relevance with the final hallucination that takes place at the end of the film. The movie’s ending is one of the things that has been most widely discussed and this is because there were two alternate endings: the one released in the UK/original version of the film and another one that came with the US release. I did not know this before watching the film but wound up watching the UK version. And thank God I did, because I am team UK-ending all the way. This is the moment where all those psychological hints come together: when we realize Sarah has not actually escaped, but is still down in the cave, hallucinating about her daughter and a birthday cake.
As I said before, there is no explanation for this. Is there something in the caves playing with her mind? Is this some sort of closure that Sarah has finally reached? We don’t know, and I love it that we don’t. Unfortunately, this all went to waste because in 2009, they decided to do The Descent 2, which gave an unnecessary background to it all. I can easily say that is one of the worst sequels I have ever seen. And let’s face it, the horror genre is full of unsolicited crappy sequels, but that is a story for another time…