Has a song ever followed you around? On the street, in the grocery store, popping up on your iPod? It's happened to me. (thankfully not in a Fallen kind of way... I think) But I've had that recently with Neil Marshall's film The Descent (2005). It's come up in several different ways in conversations with different people. I've only mentioned The Descent in passing on this blog. It's been in the back of my head to do a blog post on it but I never quite got around to it, until now. I was thinking of writing a review of it but the review would have contained three words, "I love it".
The Descent is a dark and thoughtful movie. One that contains one of my favourite horror tropes, where the horror and violence that surrounds the characters is reflection of their inner turmoil (see also: The Shining). It makes the film a human horror and The Descent is one of the best examples of this. The moral fiber of the characters is paramount to the plot and suspense of the film. They (particularly Sarah and Juno) have run from their emotions and responsibility for so long that it is almost a necessity for them to go down into that cave and face themselves and each other.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, we need a summary. (at least that's what my TAs kept telling me) A year after a tragic accident kills her husband and daughter, Sarah is on a girls trip to do some extreme-spelunking (as you do), bond and try to move on with her life. Once in the cave the "six chicks with picks" realize that all is not what it seems. Their guide and friend Juno has no map, and no idea where they are. What could have been a fun adventure is now a nightmare when the creatures that inhabit the cave come out of the dark and go after the group.
What I noticed on my last viewing of the film was that, in essence, the affair that Sarah's husband has with Juno is what causes the accident and the inevitable horrors that follow. While driving in their car, Sarah asks he husband Paul why he's distant he gently dismisses it and looks at Sarah. At that moment their car crosses the centre line of the road causing that accident that kills him and their daughter. Her husband has risked the stability of their life together (it's heavily hinted at that he would have left Sarah for Juno) and in doing so, literally destroyed his family leaving Sarah in the dark.
Juno mirrors that deceitfulness once they enter the cavern and a pass collapses nearly killing Sarah. It is revealed that they are in an unmarked cave, not the scouted cave that Juno had said she was taking them to. Juno sees it as an act of independence while Beth (the voice of reason), correctly asserts, "this is not caving, this is an ego-trip." By leading with her ego and planning a trip based on falsities, Juno has bound the group's fate together. Their own individual goodness or humility cannot save them. They are the walking dead.
It is that same ego and pride that leads to the downfall of the first victim. Holly who possess a similar bravado to Juno panics and barges blindly forward thinking she see light but falls down a hole and badly breaks her leg. While the group works to repair it and get out of there together they are attacked by the Crawlers for the first time. Holly is taken and eaten. During that attack, the group is fractured as they run off in the dark in smaller groups. Juno, who is now keeping her pick axe handy, accidently kills Beth while trying to save Holly. Even as Beth begs Juno not to leave her, Juno slinks into the darkness, hoping that this in no way will come back to haunt her. Beth is a tragic victim of circumstance. Her death is a bitter pill to swallow for the audience. But it is her death that pays off later when Sarah discovers her and Beth manages to show her the necklace that she pulled off Juno proving an affair between Juno and Sarah's husband.
Juno's accidental fatal wounding of Beth is a turning point in the film where their objective of getting out of the cave becomes secondary to surviving amongst the Crawlers. For us as the audience, we know that these women can no longer trust each other. Whether accidentally or intentionally, it's every (wo)man for themselves.
As much as The Descent embraces the dynamics of having an ensemble cast, it is very much Sarah's story. It is the accident at the beginning that binds Juno and Sarah together in ways they don't understand until the end. The most interesting realization of Sarah, to me, is the deviations in the ending. In the original ending, Sarah is by herself, a Final Girl if you will, staring into a cavern but seeing her daughter. She has succumb to her own mind rather than free herself from it. In a way, that is almost a happy ending because she is allowed once everyone else pressuring her to move on, is removed. In the "American" ending, Sarah escapes the cave, makes her way back to the car only to encounter the ghost of Juno. It is a fitting ending since to survive Sarah has had to develop her own ego and injured Juno enough before leaving that she would almost certainly be dead at the hands of the Crawlers. It is an out of character move for Sarah but based on what we as an audience have witness, we're primed to cheer her on. But in doing so, Sarah is no longer morally pure so to speak. She has committed an unthinkable act and will be haunted by it for the rest of her life.
If you remove the cave and the Crawlers from the movie you a solid human drama, but the inclusion of all the horror ratchets up the intensity and the stakes. The Descent is a brilliantly entertaining movie, one that complicated our own views of morality and right and wrong. One that makes you question your own motives and intentions and in doing so becomes one of the most humanist films in recent memory.