[Yeah, I know The Descent has been out in the U.S. for almost a week and I'm technically "late" posting a review of it now. But whatever -- we're going to be talking about this movie for a long, long time. In the grand scheme, I'm early. And anyway, this isn't a review, per se, but an excavation, if you will, of the characters' vaginas. Here starts The Descent slash. Just kidding. But there are spoilers. Many and several. I'm giving the entire movie away here, everybody. So please: if you have an inkling that you might be interested in seeing this, shut down your computer and get your ass to the nearest cineplex, now. I love this movie too much to ruin it for you.
Also, there is gore below. So beware of that, too. I love you to much to ruin lunch for you.]
The first act of Neil Marshall's The Descent is as typically unremarkable as contemporary horror first acts go. Despite the presence of a genuine, gory tragedy (a pole goes through the head of the husband of protagonist Sarah) and a phony reprise of said tragedy played out on Sarah in a dream, the film's first 30 minutes are devoid of tension. What we're presented with, instead, is sisterhood as dreamed up by a man. Sarah, the grieving widow and childless mother, and a group of her friends convene in some rustic, cabin-like house in the Appalachian Mountains in preparation for their recreational exploration of Boreham Caves. It's a group of broad broads: Beth, Sarah's pal and confidant; Juno, the thrill-seeking minx who's too hot to not have her sexuality eventually emphasized (her archetypal role is that of the other woman -- we come to find that she had a seeming relationship with Sarah's husband before those poles); Holly, a self-described "sports fuck," who looks the role, all Sporty Spice-y and butch (is there anything that says "earthy-crunchy-lezzie" more clearly than the rainbow peace sign sticker that's on her helmet?); Sam, the future doctor, who ends up nursing upon in-cave injury; and Rebecca, who...looks like Melissa Etheridge. The girls sit around the cabin, hug, drink, talk about boys and kids. If their upcoming mission were to find some bodies, you could call it Waiting To Exhume. As it stands, it's a whiff away from an FDS commercial.
When they set out the next day, the movie doesn't pick up. It becomes an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
It would seem that with cinema being the way it is, the pointed act of assembling six women and zero men for a horror movie aims to say something about womankind. But Marshall's point in this matter is rarely clear, even if the fact that these women willfully proceed down a hole in Mother Earth puts the feminine imagery in overdrive. Whether the tomb is really a womb and what that could possibly mean for Marshall's position on women thankfully stops mattering soon as the girls go further into their descent, which is both literal and figurative (the title is as much about cave diving as the trajectory of its characters' fates). At first, the cave proves herself a bitch as the women are faced with collapsing pockets of little space and virtually bottomless pits. No real surprises there -- anyone going into this should be expecting the typical nature versus man routine (even if said man has a vag). Complicating their efforts is the fact that they're in uncharted territory -- the truth emerges that daredevil Juno led them all down into this cave because the one they were supposed to explore was a tourist trap (hence earlier, suspiciously lingering shot of Juno leaving behind the map book). This is the first indication that The Descent is unlike the current crop of horror because the film is not being driven by its supposedly intelligent characters' stupidity (see a mother's careless handling of a fatal video tape that her child snatches up in The Ring, or a father's repeated ignorance of a prophecy unfurling before his eyes in The Omen). Juno is unwise, but completely aware -- her character doesn't condescend, she's just a daredevil.
And it's this lack of condescension that pushes the movie into brilliance. The first half hour finally makes sense when the gore kicks in -- Sarah's hand is torn open by a rope and, in an extended bit, Holly takes such a fall that her leg bone pops out through her skin and needs it pushed back in place. The genius here is that the Lifetime movie becomes hardcore -- it's unflinching and it hurts.
And then come the monsters (referred to as "crawlers"), which are even more blindsiding than the gore. The trailer echoes the doctor character Sam's list of all that can befall those who cave dive: "dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deterioration." The marketing and the movie, then, set you up for a shock that isn't explained away by any of these (though none of the effects exactly help our heroines), nor are the monsters explained away by some twist ending. They're there, they're real and when they become a problem, little else that came before them matters for a very long stretch. It's such a simple setup (people battling aggressive forces in an aggressive environment) that it's a wonder there aren't more movies like this. The Descent is a monster movie for a generation that doesn't have monster movies.
That it blossoms into something so brutally scary after being so nice and emotional and frilly makes the film a survivor in its own right. The Descent is constantly overcoming its limitations -- as a horror movie at a time when the pretension of the adjective "psychological" and PG-13 is the de facto law, as a chick flick, and as a low-budget film. There are scenes that look like Fraggle Rock...
...there is CG no more advanced than that in Alien³...
...but those shots are brief and don't take away from the movie to any large degree. And, in fact, the movie's economical decisions often enhance it, like when we get our first good look at a crawler via night vision...
As the girls fight their human struggle against the crawlers (one that isn't gender-based, as we find out when we see a monster with breasts -- even if she's just a girl bad guy, she's at least there to make this less of a literal women vs. men battle) and die one by one, the issue of their gender does shift back into focus. The almost literal backstabbing that occurs would seem to suggest that despite the fact that we're watching strongest, most determined women cinema has to offer in the most primal environ, undergoing the most primordial circumstances, a bitch is a bitch is a bitch. In Beth's last words, she tells Sarah that Juno killed her and left her to die (omitting the fact that it was an accident and not understanding that that you have to do for self in such a situation). "Don't trust her," she warns and then reveals that Juno had an affair with Sarah's husband. Later, after all the other girls have died and it's down to just Sarah and Juno, the pair successfully take on a pack of three crawlers. Moments later, Sarah reveals that she knows what Juno did last year and puts a spike through her leg. Maybe she's leaving Juno there as bait, but she's just been shown the ass-kicking asset that Juno is. The maiming feels personal and pretty foolish, but what else would you expect from a silly, fickle, cornflake girl?
That The Descent sucks as gender polemic makes me love it even more, because it transcends it, (however unwittingly) exposing how unnecessary the pretension in modern horror movies is. The implied statements on the nature of women do nothing to hinder the action, to make the monsters less scary, to make the search for an exit less urgent. I saw this movie a few months ago via Region 2 DVD (that's where all the screenshots in this post come from, btw), lent to me by horror expert and fab writer Buzz. I liked it then, but it wasn't until I saw it opening weekend that I fell in love with it. I chalk it up to the reliably rowdy audience that Brooklyn's United Artists Court Street theater draws. The bulk of the audience wasn't out to intellectualize The Descent and they loved it anyway -- maybe too much. There was mass schadenfreude (from the cackling that Sarah's foot getting caught elicited, you would have thought that Little Man was down there, holding onto her boot), a bombardment of obvious observations ("They got a collection," said someone when the girls came upon a section of the cave covered in animal bones, in one of the movie's blatant references to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and near-satirical, intentional misreadings. When Juno pulled out a Zippo...
...the spirited group of teenage boys behind us said, "She gonna light a blunt," and then, in homage to the film's British origin: "Oi'm gettin' hoi-gh." They had fun, they screamed, they lamented Sarah's betrayal of Juno and I don't think they came out thinking any less of women. Probably no more either, but that's fine, too. A horror movie able to exist unto itself is a blessing. That reason and The Descent's ability to work as sly commentary on the state of horror today (through its subversion of its huggy setup and through its ability to be a scare film that's actually and simply scary) help make it the horror movie of the decade. It might not be saying much, though -- what else has been great this decade? The thrilling but fatally flawed Haute Tension? The brutal but unnecessary Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake? The snappier but similarly pointless Dawn of the Dead remake? Fucking Freddy vs. Jason? And, for that matter, what was great in the '90s? Candyman? Scream, for sure, and that, too, worked on a very basic level, while leaving cinematic commentary as an added bonus (albeit in a much more obvious way).
And then, there's the ending of The Descent, which is different in the U.S. and U.K. versions. A detailed contrast of the two, with a YouTube clip of the U.K. ending is here. Basically, after maiming Juno, Sarah stumbles into a section of the cave, falls down a hole and magically is faced with the exit, which she must climb up a hill of bones to reach (a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). Once she's out, she runs to the car, gets in, pulls over, vomits, looks over in the passenger seat, and boom:
Juno's back. Cut to:
The U.S. version ends there. There's an added minute or so in the U.K. version, which leads to this:
Sarah's actually still in the cave. It was all a dream -- her stumble didn't lead her to the exit, but further down. The parting shot is of Sarah gazing at her torch, mistaking it for birthday candles from a frequent vision she has of her dead daughter.
For a while, unlike virtually everyone else who's seen the longer cut, I preferred where the U.S. version ends. I figured that Sarah's fucked either way -- she has to contend with the ghost of Juno or she's stuck inside the cave. The U.K. cut, I thought, flip-flopped too much -- she escapes and then is confronted with this apparition and then we find she's actually still in the cave. Besides, isn't that final "jump scare" (as Buzz calls it) way too cinematic of a dream to have? Of course it is, and that's why I've come to love the U.K. ending -- the flash cut to the ghost of Juno is too conventional a twist, too much of a typical one-final-scare. In cutting away from this to what really happened, the movie offers its most tangible contrast against it and the conventions of modern horror. "We could have gone this way, but instead, we're going the bleak, quiet, weird, sad route." The Descent is better than one-final-ghost shit, and damn it, it knows it. Transcendence is the real thrill here.