Over a decade later and we still talk about The Descent by describing its parts. That’s pretty common with horror films, really. The best of them always operate as a start-to-finish experience, but are typically discussed afterward by cataloging singular images—Regan’s 360 degree head twist, Leatherface waving his chainsaw against a burning sunrise, the creepy hallway twins urging Danny to “come play,” etc. Even the most learned and experienced horror fans, when pressed to discuss a shared love of a favorite fright feature, are susceptible to just passionately mentioning scenes and recalling their effect.
The release of Neil Marshall’s film exploded amidst a bleak and identity-less horror landscape. Today, as perhaps the great 21st-century horror film, it’s not surprising that The Descent is often discussed in the same awestruck manner as the best horror films of the past. As unnerving as Neil Marshall’s sophomore horror effort is, the easiest description of the jarring experience is a simple recollection of its most terrifying scenes—the first hovering-over-the-shoulder appearance of the crawler in night vision green, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) emerging from a literal river of blood, and later, the heroine bursting in a panic from the ground. But none of these scenes work (or, at least, they do not carry the functional symbolic weight) without the first gut-wrenching indication of cinematic horror that occurs in the film’s opening.
The car crash is set up by a quick observation of all three of the car’s occupants: Sarah, her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn), and her young daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll). The back-window mounted camera that captures the greater part of the collision establishes two cruel advantages over the viewer. First, it establishes everyone’s placement within the vehicle, a triangle of their front facing heads. And two, it allows the crash to unfold with us occupying a guilt-heavy first person perspective. We see, in real time, Paul’s becoming distracted, his veering into the opposite lane, and the car approaching from the opposite direction.
At the point of impact, the perspective shifts to observe the thin poles mounted on the top of the opposite car break loose and smash through Sarah and Paul’s windshield. Then, from behind the headrest of one of the car seats, we see one of those pipes pierce the skull of the seat’s occupant. This, too, is an act of editing cruelty. On my most recent rewatch, I had to repeat the scene three times, focusing on the small bit of hair and the seat’s proximity to a window, to ensure that the film was showing the pipe going through Paul’s head and not young Sarah’s. Either way, the distinction is made irrelevant when a return to the skyward, outside view shows that two pipes have crashed through the windshield, and our earlier knowledge of who was sitting where immediately lets us know who survived and who did not. With just the shortest flash of mortal injury, this scene is still as merciless as horror movies have braved to be.
The film’s titular descent then starts when Sarah wakes up in the hospital (not when she and her friends lower themselves into a cave). The most common reading of the film is that the adventurous exploration into the cave symbolizes a descent into madness (an IMDb user has even added this interpretation onto the film’s Trivia page). But I always felt that reading was a bit short of the truth. The notion that the film observes a descent into insanity suggests that there exists a sane reaction to losing a child, getting stuck inside the absolute darkness of an unmapped cave system, and being hunted by an uncatalogued species. A fairer and more suitable read would indicate that Sarah’s psychological descent, that which is metaphorically aligned with the actual geological descent, is the downward spiral into her total despair at having lost her entire family, and in particular, her young child.
While much of the dramatic tension is drawn between the implied affair that occurred between Paul and Sarah’s friend Juno (Natalie Mendez), and that tension gives way to a major vengeful subplot, far less mention of Jessica’s death is made by the group, though it seems the loss of Jessica is the one driving Sarah’s collapse. Late in the film, when Juno pleads for Sarah’s focus and help, she states that all of the girls in the group “lost something” in the crash. This line is at once true, sympathetic, and insulting to Sarah in two ways. One, it offers a half-confession of Juno’s affair, but it also diminishes Sarah’s unique perspective. If they all have lost something, they still have lost less than Sarah, as Sarah has lost everything. Hard cuts show a flashing image of a birthday cake, with heartbreakingly few candles lit atop. We must believe this image haunts Sarah most violently, if not exclusively.
It is no surprise, then, that the desperate stakes of the literal conflict are triggered by Sarah’s being stuck and immobilized. With each of the other spelunking team members having made their way through a narrow tunnel, Sarah gets stuck crawling through the boundaries. As she is encouraged to stay calm and progress forward, her plea is simple: She cannot breath and she cannot move.
Watching the film again this year, this moment immediately brought to mind the half poem/half play Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, a heartbreaking work in which the author attempts to come to terms with the unexpected death of his son. Grossman writes:
…yes, it, the thing that happened, the thing that struck like lightening and burned everything I had, including the words, goddamn it and its memory, the bastard burned the words that could have described it for me… Because a part of me, of mine, already belongs to it, deep inside it, in its damn prison, so there might be an opening, we might be able to haggle… Yes, I want [my characters] to betray me, betray it, the motherfucker. I want them to jump it from this side and the other and from every direction…just so long as they make it budge even one millimeter, that’s enough, so that at least it moves a little on my page, so it twitches,
makes it not
Applying this passage as a sort of cross-textual digging device, one might easily understand that Sarah’s insistence of being unable to move forward or to find her air is both figurative and literal, that her status of being a childless mother, of having her most precious thing taken by it, has left her immobilized, has imprisoned her identity. The framing of this sequence is aptly dark, the light offered primarily by Sarah’s headlamp so that the corner of the screen becomes a portioned screen-within-a-screen, presented the way past films have presented characters who wake up in coffins. “The worst thing that can happen to you,” Sarah’s friend encourages, “has already happened.” But this, too, is a misunderstanding. The worst thing that can happen to Sarah is still happening. It will always be happening.
Sarah barely escapes as the tunnel collapses behind them, making a return to the entrance impossible. This circumstance becomes even more severe at the discovery that Juno has once again betrayed her friends by bringing them secretly to a cave that has never been mapped, and that there may not be an exit. On the other side of this instigating event, the rest of the film is captured in similar coffin-like close-in shots and mid-shots lit by lamps, night vision, and flares, so that many of the frames begin to look like Renaissance paintings of the Christian concept of hell.
The predatory monsters in The Descent offer a secondary reflection of this battle with despair. Given the nature of the narrative and the location of the battle, Marshall had free reign in writing and developing any type of monster, but insisted on a human resemblance from the outset. A few iterations were developed and explored, but movie makeup and prosthetic artist Paul Hyett settled on a very basic design, a grimy humanoid that looks like a cross of Nosferatu and Gollem. Hyett’s crawlers are simply dehumanized humans, their eyes blinded and empty, their muscle motion and echolocation methods indicating a complete lack of culture, cognition, and civilization in an instinct-driven existence. These creatures, it seems, are just the manifestation of biological nothingness that despair would have us believe sits as the root of all of us– not supernatural, but sub-natural. Not subhuman, but base human.
Neil Marshall even insisted upon hiring real actors instead of stunt people in order to articulate a human-ness to his monsters. While the final version of the film does nothing to capture a performative humanity from the actors, perhaps the decision was still at least a conceptual success. Marshall insisted that his main actresses and his creature actors be kept separate from one another off the set. When the first creature scene was filmed, none of the women had seen the design yet. Reportedly, they all reacted with genuine fear, some of them screaming. I would not be surprised to discover that the root of the fear was recognition of twisted similarity more than shock.
Once the creatures are introduced, there is no more allegiance amongst the friends. They are as much a threat to one another as the monsters are to them. Juno’s vicious battles with the crawlers and Sarah’s Captian Willard-like emergence from a pool of blood leave both characters resembling their hunters, exhibiting more markers of monstrosity than heroism. And their infliction of wounds upon one another camouflage their roles within the narrative; there is no clean character by the end of the film.
Ten years ago today, The Descent was released in America with an altered ending. The original UK cut saw Sarah escape the cave and make her way above ground, where she found a vehicle and was startled to find Juno sitting bloody in the passenger seat, before it was all revealed to be an illusion and the movie returned to the cave, where Sarah imagined herself with her daughter, offering her the birthday cake as the crawlers moved inward. The American version left off this last part, cutting to credits at the reveal of Juno in the passenger seat. Much debate has taken place since regarding which is the true ending, which fits the narrative, which is the deserved conclusion, but, again, if we see the symbolic descent as a descent into despair instead of psychosis, this too, is a moot point.
Because if the cave is viewed as a psychic landscape and the descent within is seen as a metaphor, then this figurative reading must turn back to the literal and vice versa. Even if Sarah were to escape (as the American version suggests) her descent cannot be turned around. If anything, her despair will now be held in place by her guilt for having vengefully contributed to the death of her friend. The loss of her daughter is now an even more intrinsic part of her identity and consciousness. Perhaps the more cynical and hopeless version, then, is also the more comfortable. Survive or die, all Sarah has is that memory hidden deep inside of herself, and even if it exists as a delusion, it is a small candle-sized flash of light holding, for one last moment of life, the weight an inescapable darkness. It is in this manner that The Descent becomes the rarest sort of horror film, one less concerned with imagining the monsters or evil that might exist in the unexplainable vastness stretching away from the self, and more interested in facing the consuming nothingness within the self.
Featured Image: Lionsgate/Pathé