A Decade in the Darkness – The Descent 10 Years On

The Descent  - Shauna McDonaldBy Ben Bussey

Update, 14th March 2015: it’s been brought to my attention that The Descent did not in fact premiere in March 2005 at BIFFF, but that July at Dead by Dawn. Just goes to show – never assume IMDb to be definitive. Naturally I feel a colossal divvy for getting the date of the film’s 10th anniversary wrong, but it doesn’t in any way render this article invalid in spirit.

As much as I’m not generally one for sweeping statements, I can confidently say that, in my own humble opinion, there was no finer horror movie made in the 2000s than Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Certainly there are arguments to be made for other films of the decade, films which more directly embody the era’s predominant themes and motifs. In many respects Marshall’s sophomore movie is something of an incongruity, in that it’s a fantastical monster movie set in an unfamiliar rural landscape, as opposed to the comparatively kitchen sink, social realist, tying-people-to-chairs-and-torturing-them-to-death routine which dominated horror at the time (and to a certain extent endures to this day). Yet The Descent is absolutely reflective of the 2000s inasmuch as it brushed off the smug, post-modernist superiority complex of the 1990s, and brought a level of sincerity, emotional realism, palpable tension and unrelenting brutality that the genre arguably hadn’t seen in some time* – and yet, unlike some of its contemporaries, it also made sure not to forget about being genuinely, intensely entertaining at the same time. Yes, the 2000s were a great decade for horror, producing plenty more horror movies of note (without which, sites such as this one surely would never have come into being), but I struggle to name any other horror movie of the time which succeeded so completely on every level as The Descent.

Looking back, I think part of why it struck me so hard on first viewing (which, I should note, wasn’t until July 2005; today marks the 10th anniversary of its world premiere at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Films) was that I didn’t necessarily go in expecting that much. I’d seen Marshall’s debut Dog Soldiers, and while I quite liked it I wasn’t nearly as sold on it as many seemed to be; I’ve warmed to it over the years, but at the time I found the humour quite hit-and-miss, the story a bit patchy, and the werewolf FX somewhat laughable. So when the Chinese whispers came around that the guy who made that was following it up with a straight horror which was the scariest thing to hit cinemas in years, I was healthily sceptical. After all, another genre motif that rose to prominence in the 2000s, and hasn’t really gone away, is how pretty much every new horror movie that comes along is marketed as the most terrifying thing you’ll ever see; The Blair Witch Project got that particular ball rolling in 1999, then in 2000 Final Destination hit the brainwave of filling their TV spots with night-vision footage of audiences screaming at the screen, and from that point on everyone was at it. No, The Descent didn’t show any petrified test audiences in their trailers, but the word-of-mouth still seemed too good to be true. This new movie about chicks in a cave might be a bit of fun, but no way was it going to be all that.

By the time Sarah got stuck in the tunnel, I was eating my words and filling my pants.

Another thing The Descent stands as a perfect example of, to my mind, is how a horror movie can reveal primal fears you never knew you had. Beyond one brief experience of being stuck in a lift, I’d never considered myself particularly claustrophobic, but once it came to that first tunnel sequence I found myself white-knuckled and short of breath with my heart pounding. When the ladies first descend into the mouth of the cave, there’s a sense of awe for sure, but it’s a wide-eyed, thrilling, inspiring sight; to go from such a majestic, wide open space to such a tiny, uninviting slither of air through a solid wall of rock – it’s just too jarring. Common sense dictates that human beings are surely not meant to traverse such terrain; and even if it is physically possible, common sense once again asks, why the hell would anyone want to? I knew then as I know now that I’d be damned if you’d ever get me down in a cave like that, though in the few comparable outdoor pursuits I’ve tried – notably rock climbing and abseiling – I’ve experienced similar flashes of doubt; moments when, whilst teetering on the edge, the thought “what the hell am I doing?” takes over my entire brain. I suppose the way you react under those circumstances tells you a bit about what you’re made of – and many of the best horror films provide a similar experience, in a somewhat safer form.

Small wonder, then, that a horror movie based around what we might now call an extreme sport makes perfect sense. That said, The Descent certainly isn’t designed to cut to the heart of the adrenaline junkie mindset. While there may be moments that address just what it is that drives our characters to these pursuits (take Juno’s declaration, “if there’s no risk, what’s the point?”), these are ultimately peripheral to what is really a story about friends banding together when one among them is in need – but in so doing, drawing to the surface tensions and secrets which have long been obscured.

One of the key talking points of The Descent on release and to this day is the film’s almost exclusively female cast, its only (human) male barely lasting the first two minutes after uttering maybe three lines of dialogue. As much as we might easily find to say on the subject, to debate just why Marshall chose to keep it girls only strikes me as perhaps a little counterproductive; when so many horror films cast women either as blatantly fetishised window-dressing or to create the illusion of a gender-neutral outlook, Marshall wisely just gets to business without making an issue of it, just as how the absence of women is never an issue in any number of similar male-dominated films we might mention. I’ve read complaints that it’s hard to remember who’s who, but I’ve never quite understood why some feel that way; if nothing else the diversity of accents – Scottish Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), English Beth (Alex Reid), American Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Irish Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Danish Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder and Myanna Buring) – should surely be enough for the viewer to keep track, assuming they’re paying attention.

Equally smart was the decision to leave sexploitation out of the picture. Six very fit young women squeezing through tight wet spaces, getting dirty and sweaty, breathing heavily, most of them gradually stripping down to their skin-tight vests as things get hotter… in different hands, there was clearly the potential for things to get more than a little voyeuristic here. The Descent does indeed boast a very sexy cast, but the movie never gets sleazy about it, barely a single shot in the film feeling at all ‘male gaze’-y. Still, as is often remarked in the DVD extras, it’s not hard to read a lot of vaginal symbolism into the whole set-up; Juno can talk about going “down the pipe” without it seeming too euphemistic, but apparently some lines relating to “tight cracks” were changed on set. Factor in how bloody most of them get as they sink deeper into these crevices and – well, read in any metaphors you like. Marshall admitted to taking a great deal of inspiration from the Alien movies, which are of course also notable for their female orientation and psychosexual overtones, but like Scott and Cameron before him, Marshall doesn’t let these elements overwhelm proceedings. If you want to dwell on the subtext, you’re more than welcome, but if you just want to be carted off on a killer thrill ride, the film more than caters for that.

And can you believe I’ve got this far without even mentioning the monsters yet…

Another point that’s often debated about The Descent is whether or not it really needs the Crawlers. After all, they don’t properly enter the picture until around 50 minutes into the film’s 95 minute running time, and the whole set-up had been suitably scary already, from the nightmarish opening tragedy, the aforementioned tunnel sequence, the traverse of an abyss, and a couple of nasty injuries along the way. However, the Crawlers give us that which a lot of other horror movies that have come in the wake of The Descent have neglected to provide: a satisfying pay-off to all that build-up. That slow-burn simmering tension approach, as exhilarating as it can be, will only take you so far, and without a suitably explosive finish it can so easily feel nothing more than a big tease** – something which I daresay the recent It Follows might have done well to consider. By giving our heroines a tangible foe to do battle with, The Descent more than pays off all the preamble, giving us a final act that remains to this day eye-watering in its relentless aggression, but felt even more so in 2005, when it was still fairly early days for the new wave of horror directors bringing full-on violence back (the ‘Splat Pack’ as Alan Jones dubbed them); Marshall was without a doubt a key player of this unofficial ensemble, and The Descent a pivotal work in their oeuvre.

The Crawlers are without doubt a key part of what makes the film work; and beyond that, they’re one of the few original movie monsters of recent times that really work, and hold up. Blind, rodent-like cannibal humanoids might so easily have come off a bit corny, or have resulted in a brash, semi-comedic tonal shift akin to From Dusk Till Dawn, but The Descent skillfully avoids self-parody, maintaining the grounded (quite literally) tone established from the first two acts even once the shit hits the fan, and the action gets progressively more out there. Some might argue that the big violent showdown is simply a cliche, but this need only be the case if the filmmakers haven’t put in the requisite effort, and The Descent puts the work in to make the Crawlers fit organically into proceedings without feeling like a concession to audience expectation. Marshall is able to pay homage to monster movies of years gone by without making it feel like a rip-off, much as how the use of flares and lightsticks allows for an 80s-esque red and green colour scheme.

And the question is, where would The Descent have gone in its final act without the Crawlers? This opens up an area of popular debate that I would like to delve into – and in so doing there will be spoilers.

The Descent - Natalie Mendoza, Shauna MacDonald

Had The Descent not introduced the monstrous Crawlers just as the tension reached fever pitch, there’s really only one way I could have imagined it going: with one, some or all of the women going insane, and turning violently on one another. And the thing is, as others have suggested before me, we might wonder if this is what’s really meant to have happened anyway. Given that we see Sarah experience a waking delusion in the prologue scene following the loss of her husband and daughter, and that the film ultimately ends on her experiencing further delusions – first of escape, then of being reunited with her dead child – we might very well be left to ponder just how much of what we see in The Descent is entirely in her head. More than once, both Rebecca and Juno mention the possibility of experiencing hallucinations and panic attacks whilst caving; such lines are surely intended to leave the audience pondering whether or not this is what’s actually happening. I’ve heard speculations that have gone even further, some suggesting that literally none of what transpires is real beyond the prologue, and that the entire caving expedition is simply the fantasy of a deeply traumatised woman who has lost touch with reality completely. This, however, would leave questions to be asked as to how Sarah becomes aware of Juno’s affair with her husband – unless we take this, too, to be part of the fantasy, Sarah’s unconscious demonising the friend that abandoned her when she was needed most.

Alas, I fear I may have lost some readers here with my mention of Sarah’s climactic delusion, as when The Descent was released in the US in 2006 by Lionsgate, these final moments were removed. Now, I haven’t seen this US cut, and I suppose I understand why this happened – not everybody likes ambiguous endings that ask you to draw your own conclusions – but I really feel that to lose that ending is to severely undermine the movie (for one thing, the sporadic, out of focus shots of a birthday cake will no longer make any sense – unless these too were cut from the US edit?) Perhaps even worse, dumbing down the ending of The Descent only serves to confirm how the mainstream so often dismisses horror fans as a rabble of dunces.*** Once again – yes, The Descent absolutely works as an out-and-out white knuckle rollercoaster of a movie, but – like the masters of old – Neil Marshall understands that such an approach does not negate the possibility of intelligent, complex storytelling. Each time I watch The Descent I remain impressed by how subtly the infidelity subplot is handled, with nary a word explicitly spoken on the subject beyond Juno’s pointed comment “we all lost something in that crash.” Likewise the subtle ambiguity of the original ending. I’ve no doubt all this may have gone over the head of some viewers who were just out for something they could jump and spill their popcorn to on a Saturday night, but to assume that no horror fans are capable of getting it is just insulting – and considering what a major force in horror Lionsgate were in the 2000s, it does give pause for thought as to how they felt about the audiences that were filling their coffers. In addition, the knowledge that The Descent Part II followed on directly from that US ending is a huge part of what put me off that sequel; while I’ve caught bits of it in passing, I’ve never sat down to watch it from beginning to end.

It’s also been a little disheartening to see how Neil Marshall’s fortunes have varied in the years since. After following The Descent with 2007’s Doomsday (I almost never use this turn of phrase, but fuck the haters – that film is great) and 2009’s Centurion (perhaps his least satisfying film, but entertaining nonetheless), Marshall has subsequently been linked to numerous American movies – yet not a single one of them has wound up getting made to date. Sure, he’s done some very respectable TV work in the interim, notably two particularly epic episodes of Game of Thrones, but it’s hard not to sigh at the big screen potential which would seem to have been somewhat squandered over the past six years. I’m also a little disappointed that, Myanna Buring and Nora-Jane Noone aside, we haven’t seen more from the cast, but so far as I’m aware they’ve all gone on to have successful careers. But regardless of what anyone involved in The Descent goes on to do, having perhaps the best horror film of its decade on your CV is more than enough to take pride in – and while Buring has since said she considers Kill List the best film she’s ever been in, I must respectfully disagree.

* Some might argue the case for 28 Days Later, but I’ve got my issues with that one – and now’s not the time to get into that.
**Look, we agreed to leave questions of sexual metaphor to one side…
***And that’s crap, they all talk clever like what us do, innit?