Day 6: The Descent (2005)

Director: Neil Marshall

Starring: MyAnna Buring, Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid

Runtime: 99 minutes

Since I mentioned this movie in my last post, I figured I would focus on it today. Unlike Hostel, this movie deserves attention in its own right, not because of questions of labeling or political controversies. Simply put, I believe it to be—and I think that many critics and fans agree—one of the most well-done, significant modern horror films. Certainly it is one of the best of 2000-2010. It is a more personal film than Hostel, with strong character development, at least of the two main protagonists, Sarah and Juno. The setting—a cave in the Appalachian mountains—creates an effectively claustrophobic and nightmarish atmosphere.


It is one of the few horror films I know of—the only one I can think of at the moment—with an all-female cast. (Only one male character appears briefly, early on.) Six friends, who do thrill-seeking activities together (at the beginning, three of them are whitewater rafting), decide to go caving, largely at Juno’s (Natalie Mendoza) behest, hoping to help Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) recover from an accident after the rafting trip, in which Sarah’s husband and daughter were killed. The accident comes to be important in the tensions between these two characters. It turns out that the impulsive Juno tricked them into entering an unexplored cave—meaning they have no map to rely upon. And once they’re trapped in there, due to a cave-in, they find out they’re not alone; the cave is inhabited by ferocious, carnivorous humanoid creatures who have evolved to livee underground (they seem to only come out of the cave to hunt at night).

I don’t know that this movie fits neatly into any subgenre. The movie it reminds me of most is Night of the Living Dead, because of the claustrophobia, the tensions between characters, and the focus on a small group of people fighting a seemingly unstoppable horde of enemies. The setting itself also adds to the danger, as several accidents early in the film already create a sense of dread and suspense, before the creatures (“crawlers” as they have been dubbed) even appear. Personally, I’m not that afraid of small spaces, but the idea of caving doesn’t appeal to me—being underneath all that rock, squeezing into tight spaces, or being swallowed by wide open spaces, isn’t my idea of fun. Those scenes were perhaps more disconcerting to me than the crawlers themselves, but by the time they appear, the viewer is likely to be so worked up that you will start and scream.


These guys are scary.

And the crawlers are definitely nasty. They’re fast, they’re ugly, and they’re hungry. Having adapted to the darkness underground, they can’t see you, but they rely mostly on sound. (One would think smell too, but since they don’t seem able to sense the women when they are quiet, and must reek of blood, sweat, and fear, smell doesn’t seem to figure in.) The women are picked off one by one, but they don’t go down without a fight. Juno and Sarah prove adept at lashing back at the crawlers, but as the movie progresses, both women become more and more traumatized by the horror of what’s happening, with both performing some morally questionable actions.

The ending, in particular, reminds a lot of Night of the Living Dead, and has a similarly nihilistic quality. That’s if you see the original British version. Stupid American marketers decided to use a more hopeful ending—but then again Marshall is to blame for having filmed multiple endings. To him neither is ultimately hopeful, but the original ending packs more of a punch—in a way, it is more satisfying because it is more hopeless. I look forward to more works from Marshall, hopefully more horror—he’s not very prolific, and his comments have indicated an interest in more than horror. (His previous film, Dog Soldiers, about a squad of Scottish soldiers fighting werewolves, was more of a supernatural action movie than straight-up horror.)


Juno is scary, too. You don’t want to mess with this woman!


5 Responses to Day 6: The Descent (2005)

  1. duplexofthedamned says:

    I loved this movie–could “feminist horror” be a new subgenre?–even though the sinister slither of the cleverly filmed “crawlers” made me scream like a girl. (A small correction: the cave isn’t unexplored–early on, the cavers find rusted, antique climbing equipment–but it is uncharted, for the horrifying reason this that tough but ultimately doomed crew of women soon discovers.)

    The conflict between the group’s leader, Juno–as arrogant and capricious as the Roman goddess for which she is named–and the seemingly milder Sarah, named for one of the most patient women in the Bible–is at the heart of this movie. As Juno’s leadership and ego crack, it is Sarah’s strength and determination that come to the fore. And in the movie’s original ending (as I see it), the real reason for Sarah’s deep resentment of Juno is revealed as an eerie wish fulfillment–in a tender reunion that could occur only on the other side of the barrier that separates life from death.

    • staringatangels says:

      I don’t know if you could consider this “feminist horror,” but it is an interesting idea. Feminism does seem to be informing horror more and more. Eli Roth apparently said that me meant “Hostel II” to be a feminist horror film–something that has troubled a number of male viewers, who complain about scenes of female on male violence in the film. I think Marshal said that he wanted to make a movie with an all female cast since his first movie, “Dog Soldiers,” has a mostly all male cast.

      I’m not sure I understand your comment on Sarah’s resentment of Juno. You think that what happened between her and Juno was because she would rather have been trapped there, so that she could reunite with her daughter? I took it more as Sarah had just snapped–traumatized by everything that had happened.

  2. duplexofthedamned says:

    I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the final scene demonstrates that despite the clues (including the divided locket) that lead to the viewer and Sarah to realize that Juno was having an affair with Sarah’s husband–the lone man in the movie–and the jealousy that the viewer expects at this revelation, Sarah’s deepest emotional focus is on her lost daughter (killed along with her husband when the distracted adulterer was at the wheel of their car), and once Sarah, despite fighting the good fight, realizes that ALL HOPE OF ESCAPE IS GONE, she escapes into the “eerie wish fulfillment” of a tender reunion with her dead daughter. The primary bonds in this unusual movie remain female to female until the end–and after.

    • staringatangels says:

      OK, but I don’t understand how that explains “the real reason for Sarah’s deep resentment of Juno is revealed as an eerie wish fulfillment–in a tender reunion…” Did Sarah resent Juno or not? She remains focused on her daughter, but why did she kill Juno? You also seem to forget that Sarah found the locket on Beth, whom Juno had left to die. It could be that Sarah’s anger is more related to that, than any thoughts about her husband.

      • duplexofthedamned says:

        Yes, Sarah comes to resent Juno for a lot of things–for leading the group into an uncharted cave system, for accidentally wounding Beth and then leaving her to die, for having the affair with Sarah’s husband that led to his distraction and inattention at the wheel–a factor in the car accident that killed him and their daughter. And Juno’s “loyalty” to Sarah is really guilt, given her cavalier attitude toward the other expedition members.

        But Sarah’s primary sense of loss–which is at the root of her anger toward Juno, and which finally explodes into murderous rage–is not the illicit affair or the death of her husband (as might be the case in a more conventional drama) or even Juno’s arrogant blunders and fatal lies during the doomed expedition, but the loss of her daughter. This is why Sarah’s final consoling fantasy–her “eerie wish fulfillment” as the crawlers close in–is of a birthday reunion with her dead daughter. The husband is incidental, a plot point. The primary emotional bonding–which Sarah embodies, and Juno betrays again and again–is female to female.

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