Girl Meets Context: It’s Indie Horror Month, where we cover some of the best original and independent horror movies to be released in the last few years. The Descent is the second feature by British director Neil Marshall (after 2002′s Dog Soldiers). In the film, a group of six friends (most of them Brits) go on a caving expedition in the Appalachian wilderness. The trip is meant to function as a catharsis for our main character Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) – a year earlier, she lost her husband and young daughter in a car accident. The expedition has been planned by the adventurous Juno (Natalie Mendoza) in hopes of bonding the women together. However, once they are trapped in the cave system by an unexpected tunnel collapse, it is revealed that Juno has led them into a dangerous area that has never been explored before. As the women struggle to survive and find their way out of the caves, things go from bad to worse when they realize they are not alone underground – a race of pellucid, flesh-eating mutants live in the cave system. What follows is a gory, thrilling hybrid of adventure and horror. The film was a minor hit at the box office and was critically lauded by both genre and mainstream critics. Many consider it to be one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Kristine and I watched the movie years ago when we began our horror movie club, so we used our discussion as an opportunity to revisit and reassess the movie. If you haven’t seen The Descent please be forewarned that our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: So, I maintain that, almost 100 films later, The Descent is still one of the scariest and the best we have watched.
Sean: This was the first time you had a panic attack during horror movie club!
Kristine: Yeah, and wasn’t it the first movie we watched? Oh shit, no, was the first movie… Audition? Say it wasn’t!
Sean: This was our third movie. It went: Audition, House of the Devil, The Descent.
Kristine: Fucking Audition.
Sean: I call it NAWdition. Or more like HELL NAWdition.
Kristine: When I revisited The Descent, I still screamed when the crawler appears over Beth’s shoulder. I died, just like I did when we first watched it. And the scene that gave me a panic attack the first time (when Sarah gets stuck in a really narrow crawlspace and begins to melt down) was just as hard to watch.
Kristine: You love my pain.
Sean: I am Pinhead, you are Kirsty. So what is the magic of The Descent? Why is it so good at what it does?
Kristine: So many threats at once, right? The claustrophobia of being stuck in the cave, the threat of accidental injury, the threat of the crawlers, the threat of one another, the threat of one’s own mind – there are stressors everywhere. And the movie does an amazing job of making us care about the fates of these characters we have just met.
Sean: Agreed. Though it really is Beth, Sarah and Juno we care about, and then three chicks who are just there to be mutant-chow.
Kristine: Says you.
Sean: Did you love the other three characters?
Kristine: I cared about dykey Holly.
Sean: You mean “Juno’s protégé”? The “base jumper”? If she was a real person and we met in real life, we’d instantly hate one another.
Kristine: I would hate Holly, too. Remember the scene when one of the women gets massive, traumatic rope burns all over her hands and it is awful? One thing I love about this movie is how the physical threat of caving is as scary as the threat of the crawlers… For me, anyway.
Sean: Yes, I agree. The first 1/2 of the movie is just a straight-up caving adventure and the 1/2 half is a mutant bloodbath, and the movie does both genres really, really well. I agree that the subterranean setting really ups the ante on everything. I’m curious about why the scene where Sarah gets stuck in the tunnel bothers you. Are you claustrophobic in real life?
Kristine: Are you kidding me? How could anyone not have a nervous breakdown watching that scene?? If the director offered me 10 million dollars to film that scene I would totally decline. Yes, in real life I am claustrophobic. Being buried alive is my biggest nightmare.
Sean: When I was a kid, my sister used to wrap me in a blanket and cover me with pillows and lay on top of me and crush me… It was like being buried alive.
Kristine: When we watched this movie together (what, 4 years ago?) do you remember my reaction to that scene? I have blocked it out…
Sean: I totally remember your reaction and it was amazing. You kept telling me to turn off the movie and also threatening to leave.
Sean: Yes. That was the night we started the tradition of…. additional scares.
Kristine: Fuck. No additional scares ever!!!!! What exactly did I say?
Sean: This was you: “Nooooo. No. Sean! I’m not watching this. NO. Noooooo. Seeeeeaaaaaannnnn! I’m going in the other room. I’m serious!”
Kristine: Ha ha! I remember watching Drag Me to Hell and going “no no no no no no” at the screen. In these moments of stress, do I think saying “no” will make it stop? No means no!
Sean: Sarah doesn’t take no for an answer. Then you made me pause it after Sarah escapes the tunnel in order to catch your breath and go pee, and while you were in the bathroom I turned out all the lights and turned off the tv and you came back out into pitch blackness and got so mad.
Kristine: Oh, you were awful. I remember sitting in your bathroom and throwing rolls of toilet paper out into the darkness for some reason and making you say something to prove you were on the couch and not hiding somewhere…
Sean: No, I was hiding in the dark and you were throwing the rolls as some half-hearted effort to protect yourself from me scaring you.
Kristine: Half-hearted! It was my only weapon! You are lucky that I am not Juno and you aren’t Beth. Did you ever consider the possibility that you would go too far with additional scares and I would stab you out of fright/self-defense? No jury in the land would convict me.
Sean: It would just be a flesh wound from your limp-wristed stabbing abilities.
Kristine: No way. You would be deader than a doornail, sir!!
Sean: You’d go “myuh” and stab at me but just the teeny tip of the blade would, like, barely make a scratch.
Kristine: You think, huh? Like in Repulsion? Nope! I would go full Juno on your ass! I am going to practice my stabbing…
Sean: On Boyd. [Editor's Note: Boyd is Kristine's cat.]
Kristine: Nope! On a body pillow dressed up like you.
Sean: You admitted that if Mick from Wolf Creek charged into your house to get you, you’d fling Boyd at him as a delaying tactic while you got away.
Kristine: Moving on!
Sean: Since you brought it up, that moment where Juno accidentally kills Beth with the pickaxe is one of the best moments in the whole movie. So shocking, so unexpected, so devastating.
Kristine: I really like the moral ambiguity of Juno’s character. Yes, she does some bad things, but she is not evil.
Sean: I agree with that. But I’m wondering if you think the subplot of Juno having fucked Sarah’s dead husband is claptrap or essential to the proceedings….
Kristine: I think it is essential to establish Sarah’s total mental breakdown towards the end of the movie, right? That’s the detail that cements Juno as a villain in Sarah’s mind, and leads to Sarah stranding her in the cave to become Crawler Chow. Sarah is the only one who does a truly evil thing.
Sean: I thought it was more because Juno doesn’t tell anyone about mortally injuring Beth and leaving her there to die… That’s pretty evil.
Sean: But I still like that Juno is not a “mean girl,” despite her flaws. All of the mistakes and bad decisions she makes are understandable, from choosing an uncharted cave for their trip without telling anyone, to even abandoning Beth in a moment of total panic.
Kristine: We don’t know if Sarah abandons Juno in the end as revenge for Beth or revenge for her hubby-fucking. Either way, it’s fucked up. I like how Juno goes down fighting. I like Juno better than Sarah, I have decided.
Sean: At the end of the day, this movie is not that original. It is just really good at assembling together tropes from horror films of yore and making it all work. Like Sarah, the wallflower who turns into a badass in the end is a classic horror movie character. And I was surprised upon rewatching it how much the film’s premise is totally lifted from Alien/Aliens. This is a modern spin on the haunted house story, just like Alien was. In Alien, the haunted house became a spaceship “haunted” by an alien presence; in The Descent the haunted house becomes a cave system “haunted” by creatures. But both those movies, just like the classic haunted house story, are about interiority and the terror of an unnatural invasion of innerspace by some totally alien Other.
Kristine: True, but after watching many horror movies over the last few years, I still think The Descent feels really fresh. For one thing, the all-female cast is still refreshing and, sadly, feels like a ballsy proposition, right? Out of the nearly 100 movies we’ve watched together, the only other one with an all-female cast is House! Whereas we’ve watched a bunch that are set in all-male environments: Session 9, Rare Exports, The Thing, etc.
Sean: Yes, I love the all female-cast and the movie is not exploitative or full of titty-shaking at all. The characters actually feel real and feel like friends and they’re all a recognizable type.
Kristine: If you have a boner during this movie, you are a situation that needs to be studied.
Sean: Even though I love this movie, and I really enjoy it and dig on Sarah, Beth and Juno, there is a certain part of me that is like, “You Teva-wearing, Summit Hut-shopping, urban cyclist assholes deserve to fucking die.” I mean, these ladies are total fucking yuppies!
Kristine: They do come across as privileged, for sure. There is something about people who put themselves in jeopardy for fun/sport that inevitably confirms that they have never been in jeopardy in real life – i.e. they have always had food/shelter/love/support.
Kristine: People who have had to struggle don’t deliberately put themselves in dire straits for fun.
Sean: They’re in their Italian marble-countertopped kitchens sipping espressos being like, “I’m bored. Let’s go have an experience.”
Kristine: But I think “deserve to fucking die” is way too harsh.
Sean: I actually think this movie pivots on class politics more than anything else, at least for me. I think it’s noteworthy that they’re in rural Appalachia and that the cave system itself is coded working class, with all these relics of former miners/blue collar workers strewn about.
Kristine: Do you see Juno as less privileged than Sarah?
Sean: Um… No, they’re all richies. Juno has an extra layer of chutzpah that makes her seem more rugged and “working class,” but that shit’s a front.
Kristine: I like that the mutants are descendants of humans that have adapted to the caves – that is a cool detail. And they are scary as fuck! Do they scare you?
Sean: Yes, but as Julie Andrews says, “In the most delightful way.”
Kristine: Of all the movies we have watched, the crawlers in The Descent and the vampires in 30 Days of Night are some of the only ones that have really scared me. I’m trying to think of more…
Sean: Lies. Mick.
Kristine: Yes, Mick, but I am thinking of monsters, not evil people.
Sean: Lucie’s imaginary demonwoman in Martyrs.
Kristine: Oh, Christ. Oh my god, oh my god. She lives under my bed!
Sean: Hahaha. She probably does.
Kristine: Fuck, I am melting down. Fuck!! I am having a meltdown.
Sean: Why? What is going on?
Kristine: Because of too much scariness!
Sean: You’ll be fine. Though I do wonder if, after you turn out the lights at night, Lucie’s demonwoman just lays there in the dark watching you sleep…
Kristine: I am going to turn Lucie’s demonwoman into my friend, and she will protect me against people who mean me harm… Thunk about it, Sean! At the end, when Sarah has hobbled Juno and leaves her, and Juno turns around to face all the crawlers? My heart still sinks. But here is the thing: I would take the crawlers over being stuck in that collapsing tunnel. Any. Day. Of. The. Week. Bring it!
Sean: Kristine, you haven’t responded to the class issues involved with the specter of blue collar workers being connected to the hideous cum-goblins trying to eat these LL Bean-wearing yuppie well-to-dos.
Kristine: That’s a fine reading. I accept it. I am too busy in my own world of fear to think about you and your obsession with class.
Sean: But then is this movie about the pleasure of watching rich one-percenters get eaten? Or the pleasure of all our worst fears about the abject grossness of the rural poor being confirmed? Or both?
Kristine: Neither. I accept your point-of-view as a plausible reading, but I don’t think it’s what the movie is about. I think the movie is about trauma.
Sean: But you made the point that only well-to-dos go on danger-adventures.
Kristine: Yes, but it’s still a minor theme. Not the main one. Sure, I think there is something to the fact that these poor miners had to go in these dangerous caves to survive and it ended up killing them as a result, and in the modern times these ladies are going in there for kicks. Sure, that exists. But I don’t think it is the primary theme of the movie.
Sean: Would you agree that female hysteria is partly what this movie is about?
Kristine: No, I don’t think female hysteria is a major theme. Again, I think it is about the effects of trauma, which are not gender-specific. Let me ask you a question. Do you think this film is pro- or anti-female friendship?
Sean: That’s a good question. I would say “pro” because the Beth/Sarah relationship is so meaningful and rich. And even Juno won’t leave without the caves without Sarah, remember?
Sean: And part of me thinks that Juno knows what Sarah will do to her and she is accepting her fate as karmic payback for her misdeeds. What do you think about that?
Kristine: I disagree. Ugh, I hate that! Do you think Sarah has any right to do that to Juno? Do you think audiences cheered when she does that?
Sean: Yes, audiences cheered.
Kristine: Fuck the world.
Sean: Is Juno the real hero of the story for you?
Kristine: Starting right now, my answer is ‘Yes. Team Juno.’
Sean: Because she’s just a trick who is twerkin’ her way through life?
Kristine: Wow. Um…
Kristine: I don’t think Juno’s “crimes” justify the punishment at all. Sarah is a nut case.
Sean: I think the movie is about female hysteria, trauma and melancholy. I find it really interesting that Sarah becomes a badass after she kills a crawler child, thereby re-enacting the death of her daughter. Then she kills the child’s vengeful she-mother, and then it’s father. It is by eradicating this nuclear family (and symbolically destroying her own past) that she is able to fully inhabit the present and stop being a nervous nelly.
Kristine: She uses Juno to fight the crawlers and then sets her up to be killed. If Sarah was really acting out of passion, she wouldn’t be as canny in her timing. I think I hate Sarah.
Sean: I also want to point out the Sarah’s conversion is staged as a kind of baptism by gore. It recalls the ending of Phenomena where Jennifer falls into the corpse-sludge. Do you know about the controversial “second ending” stuff with this movie?
Kristine: I think so… In the movie Sarah escapes but then it’s just a delusion, right? She is still stuck in the cave and will die. And in the alternate ending, she really does escape?
Sean: Yeah, in the original U.K. ending, Sarah ends the movie still in the cave, with some phantom images of her dead daughter’s birthday cake all terrorizing her brain. In the U.S. ending, she gets out. I really do think the movie is a case study of female hysteria – Sarah is the hysteric, and the “monsters” at first seem like they could be delusions she’s having. It’s really, really effective. And then she goes full monster-killing badass but, in both endings regardless, she’s back to being a hysteric.
Kristine: It is definitely a horror trope how the movie makes it seem like the crawlers might be her delusions at first, then are proved to be real. But it is totally effective. Sarah is a Cassandra, driven mad by her grief and the weight of knowing the truth. Though it is not the full truth, right? She knows Juno is responsible for Beth’s death, but doesn’t know it was an accident. She knows Juno had an affair with her husband but doesn’t know the circumstances, or that Juno truly loves her despite betraying her. Sean. I have a real question.
Kristine: If I fucked your boyfriend and then accidently killed your sister and you found out, would you put a pickax in my leg and let the crawlers get me????
Sean: Jesus Christ.
Sean: Why are you such a monster!?
Kristine: Answer now.
Sean: Yes, I would do it.
Kristine: What??? Lie. I would never do that to you!
Sean: You want me to say yes and you know it.
Kristine: I can’t even believe this is happening. My world is crumbling.
Sean: Hahahaha! You’re so full of it!
Kristine: I have invested years in you and now I need a new best friend!
Sean: If we’re using the movie as the template for this monstrous question, after Juno makes the mistake of mortally wounding Beth, she abandons Beth there to die rather than owning up to what happened. So you would injure my sister and then leave her there to die/get eaten by the crawlers? No. That means you get horse-hobbled and left to become Crawler Chow.
Kristine: The lesson I have learned is not to wear a tell-tale pendant.
Sean: That is Juno’s true sin, according to you.
Kristine: She was under a lot of stress!
Sean: She’s a cowardly ‘ho.
Sean: No, I love Juno.
Kristine: I can’t continue. I am consumed with thinking of you axing me and leaving me to die…
Sean: Easy enough, just don’t do bad things. Easy-peasy.
Kristine: Easier said than done!
Sean: Since mutants don’t exist, I’ll have to abandon you to a pack of starving feral dogs covered in KY jelly. I feel like this would a great movie to do a real psychoanalytic reading on.
Kristine: Yes, you’re right. Juno/Sarah are total female archetypes, even down to their names (Roman Goddess vs. Christian biblical name), their appearance (“exotic” vs. blonde milquetoast), their roles in society (down low ho fo’ sho’ vs. wife and mother). The dichotomy “works” in the movie but also makes it a bit suspect to me.
Sean: Wow, I love your feminasty suspicions.
Kristine: I am suspicious.
Sean: Usually I am the one beating the theory drum.
Kristine: I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on the (feminasty) drum all day…
Sean: Ok, I have a serious question: Would you ever go on a caving adventure?
Kristine: The chances were far more likely before I saw this movie. You?
Sean: I would definitely. I love caves. Love.
Kristine: Interesting. What would Freud say?
Sean: I think we both know what he’d say and it ain’t pretty.
Sean: So what’s your rating? I say Masterpiece!
Kristine: Masterpiece! AND Problematic but fun as hell.
Sean: Good girl!
Kristine: And by “fun” I mean “torture.” The best kind of fun! This movie appeals to my inner masochist.
Sean: I also rate this: Perfect for additional scares.
Kristine: No! That is not a sanctioned rating!
Sean: There is a sequel to this movie, fyi.
Sean: It is Sarah leading a team of sheriffs back to the caves in a search of the missing women.
Kristine: Oh, that is stupid. Can I float a theory/question?
Kristine: Do you agree that she-monsters are creepier than he-monsters? The she-thing in this; the diapered, tittied thing in [REC], the demonwoman in Martyrs… Emaciated ladies with drooping titties and any kind of diaper = scary, right?
Sean: Hmmm…. Maybe.
Kristine: Yes. I forgot about [REC] until just now, but it existed.
Sean: Yes. It is beloved.
Sean: Was it the most underwhelming thing we’ve ever watched?
Kristine: Certainly not the most underwhelming…
Sean: Now it’s my turn to say, “Hmmmm.”
The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Problematic, but fun as hell
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Perfect for ADDITIONAL SCARES.