In 2002, writer/director Neil Marshall was the man behind one of the more prominent entries in the werewolf sub-genre, Dog Soldiers. Quite well received in the community, the film went on to earn a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory just a few years ago. But it wasn’t until three years later in July of 2005, that he released his magnum opus of horror: The Descent.
While Dog Soldiers explored werewolves in the world of the military, The Descent is more keen to spotlight cave-dwelling creatures with a group of cave-diving ladies. The film’s official logline reads: “A caving expedition goes horribly wrong, as the explorers become trapped and ultimately pursued by a strange breed of predators.” But what that brief synopsis doesn’t prepare you for is the brutality and emotional depth that the film juggles with ease.
Unpacking a Polaroid
In an opening scene so skillfully imbued with pertinent character history, we meet three of the ladies on a white water rafting adventure. Immediately we’re clued in to the badassery of these women, because that’s an activity that would surely cause my death, should I ever decide to try it. The partakers in question are Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), and our main character Sarah (Shauna Macdonald).
Here’s where the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exposition comes into play. Sarah‘s husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) are by the water ready to help the ladies out. Sarah and Beth are otherwise occupied gathering belongings while Paul gives Juno a hand, helping her out of the raft. The two share a bit of a “moment” as their gaze lingers just longer than normal. Their hint of indiscretion is picked up by Beth, who glances over at the right moment but stays silent. And poor Sarah is none the wiser as she and her family are riding in the car on the way home. Though she picks up on Paul‘s emotional distance, and not ten seconds later they collide with an oncoming car. A crash that kills Paul and Jessica, and leaves Sarah with emotional wounds made all the more tragic by her ignorance.
“‘Love each day,’ that’s what Paul used to say,” muses Sarah, one year later. She and the ladies are having drinks in a cabin in the woods, on a weekend caving excursion organized by Juno. Not just for fun, but to help Sarah take her mind off things. And probably to help Juno herself feel like less of a shitty friend. The three are joined by Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), her sister Sam (MyAnna Buring), and Juno‘s friend Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Bright and early the next morning, the six of them set off to the cave Juno chose, primed and ready to explore the depths of the Earth.
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Down in the Underground
One of my favorite things about this film is its willingness to take its time, effectively building a rather potent feeling of claustrophobia as the explorers wander deeper and deeper. Sprinkling in a few strange noises and sneaky glimpses of the predators that wait in the shadows, just to put us on edge even more. Once the ladies get underground, the cinematography by Sam McCurdy really shines, constructing some really beautiful shots that make effective use of negative space to portray the vastness of the unknown. And when they inevitably get separated, he cleverly distinguishes each different setting with different colors and forms of light. Whether it’s a green glow stick, the yellow glow from a fiery torch, or the sinister red hue given off by an emergency flare, McCurdy and Marshall make sure to keep things visually interesting.
It’s the least they could do for putting us through one of the most squirm-inducing scenes of claustrophobia you’re likely to see, as Sarah gets stuck while making her way through a tight tunnel. The sound design during these scenes makes use of a tin-like hollow sound effect on their voices, amplifying the feeling of an enclosed space. I really can’t stress enough how unfortunate this experience will be for you if you have severe claustrophobia. It’s that effective.
But since she’s our main character it’s safe to say she makes it through before it collapses, with a little help from Holly. And now they’re stuck in a different sense, with their only way out now blocked, the six of them need to find a way out of this cave. One might suggest a map, but in a never-ending bid to prove she’s the f*cking worst, Juno deliberately left the map in the car. Why? BECAUSE THIS CAVE HAS NEVER EVEN BEEN EXPLORED BEFORE.
Worse than Lost
“I wanted us to discover it,” she proclaims, with a maddening sense of bravado. So this is clearly when things start to go bad, and when it rains it pours, fiends. 56 whole minutes in, the creatures finally rear their ugly, slimy heads with a chase/fight sequence to die for. One of the best things about this movie, as I said, is its unflinching brutality. Blood is in no short supply as pick-axes, clubs, knives, and fists are wielded with a vengeance. But things don’t devolve into a mindless creature feature once the blood lets, if anything it gets even more emotionally complex from here.
Among the chaos of the initial confrontation, and after killing one of the creatures, Juno hears a noise behind her and reflexively spins around and sticks a pick-axe right in the neck of… BETH! It’s quite a tense moment, seeing the conflict in Juno’s eyes as she comes to realize what she’s done, and then grapples with what to do next as she considers that this is the one person who knows of her affair with Paul. (“We all lost something in that crash,” Juno firmly whispers to Beth during a moment earlier in the cave.) And to the surprise of no one, she opts to back away quietly, leaving Beth to bleed out and die with her secret. But unbeknownst to her, Beth tore off a necklace Juno was wearing during the struggle. A necklace that Paul gave her, to be exact, that has his favorite slogan, “love each day” inscribed on the inside of it.
And when Sarah eventually stumbles across her, Beth (who is still barely alive) gives it to her and throws that bitch Juno right under the bus where she belongs. It’s around this time that Sarah‘s character really makes a noticeable transformation. Both visibly (as her hair and skin are covered in drying blood) and mentally, as she finally runs out of f*cks to give.
After brutally murdering a few of the creatures (one of whom’s eyes she gouges out with her thumbs, complete with sound effects), she finds Juno and casually asks her the status of the others. “Beth… didn’t make it” Juno says. “You saw her die?” Sarah asks, and she meekly nods. The piercing glare that she’s met with by Sarah is on another level. If looks could kill, everyone in a ten-mile radius would be OBLITERATED.
And just a few minutes later, no longer able to contain her contempt, Sarah wordlessly confronts her with just a flash of the necklace in her hand. Juno knows damn well what this implies, and looks suitably worried. And in an act of pure savagery that still gives me shivers of pride, Sarah sticks her pick-axe right in Juno‘s leg and bolts. Leaving the approaching cave creatures with their main course for the evening.
Facing the Day
Sarah mercifully finds a ray of daylight shining down along a mountain of skulls and bones, which she scrambles up with every last ounce of her energy and breaks out into the fresh air for the first time all night. It’s now the next morning, as she runs straight for the car and drives. Here’s where the ending differs, depending on where you saw the film. In the modified, very ‘Americanized’ ending, Sarah pulls over to vomit and when she sits back up Juno’s ghost is sitting next to her and she screams. The End.
But in the original UK ending, this jump scare leads to her waking up, still in the cave. She sits up, and sees her daughter Jessica sitting in front of her with a birthday cake. But the light from the birthday candles is really just the fire from her torch, and Jessica is of course not really there. The camera pulls out and reveals that Sarah is in fact nowhere near an exit. And the creatures are approaching. The End.
There’s some debate about which is the better ending. And even which one is considered more depressing. In my opinion, the original is far superior and even a little less depressing actually. Yes, she likely dies. But if she really did escape, it’s suggested she’d be haunted by the happenings in the cave for the rest of her life. On top of the already prevalent trauma of losing her family. And if you compare the last shots of Sarah in each version, there’s only one in which she seems genuinely at peace. So which is the real “descent”?
What do you think, do you share my love of The Descent? Which of the endings do you prefer? Join the conversation in our Facebook group!