It’s been several years since the last time I watched THE DESCENT (2005). Coming into this momentous re-watch, I had some concerns. Would watching this film during the day for the first time make it less scary? Or worse, would it be too dark to see stuff? Plus, this is one of the first true horror movies I ever watched – now that I’m an avid and critical horror viewer, would it be a disappointment?
Luckily, I have spoiled all possible tension for you, dear reader, by revealing in the title of this article that THE DESCENT, written and directed by Neil Marshall, is, just as great as I remember!
There was even a ton of good stuff I had completely forgotten!
Before I dig in to the more substantive reasons why this movie is excellent, I need to briefly laud director Neil Marshall for lighting. Despite being underground, plausible light sources abound: night vision, headlamps, flares, torches, etc. While it feels dark and scary, I experienced neither eye-strain nor narrative confusion! Good job, Neil!
Now for some other things Neil did right.
THE DESCENT is a taut, violent thriller packed with gross-outs, jump scares, and badass chicks who fight tooth and nail to survive. It avoids the majority of irritating gender stereotypes*, and has all the narrative hallmarks of a classic “don’t go to space (cave/ocean/etc.)” scare: a cocky adventurer leads a well-rounded team into an unknown expanse, where they encounter a malevolent force. Then, due to the aforementioned adventurer’s cockiness, their only hope for survival is themselves.
Plus it has one of the best monster-kills of all time, when Juno (Natalie Mendoza) kills a monster by ripping his penis off with her hand, balls and all. HOW DID MY PARENTS LET ME WATCH THIS INCREDIBLE FILM? THANK YOU, PARENTS!
The whole film is nicely supported by two threads of non-monster tension: first, Sarah’s (Shauna MacDonald) trauma over her dead daughter (who haunts her) and dead husband, who, unbeknownst to Sarah (yet), cheated on her with Juno. BUT WILL THE SECRET COME OUT?? (Hint: yes.) Secondly, the expedition into the cave is inherently tense even without the monsters. They’re lost in an unknown system of caves with limited resources. The search for an exit leads to cave-ins, falls, and a truly impressive sequence in which expert climber Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) free-climbs across a chasm to construct a rudimentary rope-bridge for the other, less-superhuman, women.
I would literally watch this movie without the monsters.
But also, the monsters are epic!
Despite a slow lead-up to seeing the first monster, we ultimately see them a TON. This breaks my cardinal rule of horror #1, which states:
When the monster is revealed it stops being scary.
WELL THESE MONSTERS ARE SCARY THROUGHOUT.
I think in part because they’re very human-like, and in part because it’s clear they can’t be reasoned with, the monsters are scary even after getting pretty substantial screen time. They’re sort of like fast zombies: as strong as an adult human man, but totally driven by the desire to eat. Also like zombies, there seems to be a never-ending horde of them, and they keep coming no matter how many are killed, meaning the characters have no chance of fighting their way to safety. The only hope for survival is to find a way out of the cave…which they may or may not be able to do.
Another thing I really appreciated about this film was the way it pulls no punches in terms of brutality. When (SPOILER) Juno accidentally kills Beth (Alex Reid), we get a lingering shot of Beth choking on her own blood with a pickaxe bisecting her throat. When Sarah later disables Juno and leaves her to die, we get a similar shot of Juno’s stabbed leg. Over and over the violence is sudden, gory, fatal, and often incorporates a moment where the dying character has to reckon with her own death. It’s super painful, in the best way.
Famously, THE DESCENT has two endings: a US version, in which Sarah escapes only to nearly be hit by a semi and then sees the ghost of Juno in her car; and a UK version, in which all that happens, but then Sarah wakes up (having been knocked on the head), still trapped in the cave, and hallucinates her dead daughter while the monsters close in around her. I’d seen both endings way back in 2005 (back then, when you watched movies, they came on a disc, which contained extra content!). Having refreshed my memory of both endings I can definitively say the UK ending is far superior in that A) it makes more sense that the Juno ghost is part of a dream, and B) the hallucination of the daughter has greater narrative continuity with the rest of the film. Plus, C), it’s just freakier.
Still, both versions are excellent, so I highly recommend you check out THE DESCENT at your earliest convenience!
- Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass! Literally all the characters are women.
- Sexy Lamp Test: Pass.
- Willis Test: Pass.
- Ko Test: Pass. Actress Natalie Mendoza, who plays Juno, is of Filipino/Spanish/German/English descent. Although it’s kind of BS that the closest thing the film has to a human villain is also the only WOC, it’s also true that Juno is a complex character with many lines/scenes.
- Roxane Gay Test: On the one hand, the characters live in an almost implausibly female-dominated world and they’re all pretty complex; on the other they’re mostly white/cis/hetero…I give it half credit.
- Carie-Burns Test: Fail! Everybody dies! Which was, admittedly, very enjoyable for me.
*NOTE: The most irritating instance of ~gender~ is that there is exactly ONE (1) monster with titties, and she is the only one we ever see express a human emotion. She cries over her dead…boyfriend? Why are we bothering to impose gender roles on flesh-eating Gollum-creatures? Why don’t the boy monsters feel sad when their friends die in battle? And WHY is there only one girl monster in the first place?? I object.
Have you watched THE DESCENT? Did it scare the pants off of you? Are there other similar scare-fests I should check out next? Drop your thoughts in the comments!