New 10YA contributor Rachel Breiwick goes spelunking with six intrepid explorers in Neil Marshall’s horror film The Descent, which passes the Bechdel Test “in a way that makes other test-takers look bad.”
The flick opens easily enough. Several women careen down a whitewater river, whooping and laughing as they barely hang on, and causing the viewer to think for the first of many times throughout the film, “Why are you guys doing that?”
A man and a child, our protagonist’s family, watch from the river’s edge as these thrill-seeker soccer moms put themselves through unnecessary danger. Unfortunately, on the drive home, a car accident ends up killing off the sole male character and the child, leaving just our heroine Sarah alive. When Sarah comes to and realizes her child and husband are dead, we see the tall blonde weeping in the hospital hallway, as her friend Juno cries suspiciously hard and leaves abruptly. (Infidelity hints much?)
A year later, the women are off for another adventure; this time there are more of them. Six attractive, single, well-off-enough-women-to-go-recreationally-spelunking camp out in cabins the night before their big cave trip. This film is clearly pre-2008 recession (turns out it’s just the UK), evidenced by the fact that I can barely get time off enough from work to go… wait for it: SPELUNKING, let alone be able to afford anything at REI anyway. However, with nothing but six women trying to survive a totally doomed cave, this 2006 film passes the Bechdel Test in a way that makes other test-takers look bad. In a genre that uses women as pawns for making blood look beautiful, it’s great to watch a horror flick that refuses to engorge themselves on attractive women standing there screaming—though that totally happens.
Hearty laughs and back claps happen on the eve of the cave dive. All good horror thrillers need to start this way. We are treated to the quintessential smiling group “Before” shot, epitomizing the happy climbers in a self-timed photo. And they take off.
“‘Borhem Caves,’” Holly says on the drive up, “More like Boredom Caves.” Holly, the climbing protégé of Juno…. what a wise-ass. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’ll be the first to go.
As the girls leave their vehicles in the direction of the cave, I saw something I never noticed before. “First in Flight,” the North Carolina license plate reads. How ironic. It’s exactly here where their descent begins.
A partial passage through dank cave water, then Sarah’s nerve-wracking, squeamish mental breakdown brings fear of tight places to the forefront. A rumble, a shake, a few fallen rocks, and then a panic to GTFO as a wall of boulders seal their only exit. But there’s another way out, right Juno? Borhem Caves has three possible exits, right Juno? False. Not only did this bitch intentionally leave the map behind, they are in a completely unexplored cave. “It doesn’t have a name,” she says, “I wanted us all to discover it.” Aaaand it is here that they hear the first noises from within the earth.
They are not alone.
In a blood-draining scene where Rebecca, a competent climber, single-handedly creates a rope bridge over a gaping cavern, she finds a pre-existing “cam” (according to Wikipedia: basically a climbing hook) set into the earth on to which you clip your carabiner. She ignores the fact that this means someone else has most definitely been here, and clips her line to it.
The girls make it over the makeshift bridge, but of course, for the last girl the cam fails, and Rebecca’s hands are ripped to shreds. From here, I remember everything going to shit.
Holly snaps her shinbone falling down a sudden hole. The group starts to panic. The underground hallucinations start, and Sarah hears her deceased daughter giggling. We also get our first glimpse of the things that lie beneath: a shot from between its splayed legs, with ooze dripping from its testicles. I remember it being a truly horrifying play-dough humanoid, without eyes or ears, and my memory served about right. Sarah, a victim of infidelity, family tragedy, and frenemy backstabbing, is the first to see one of the things. But of course, blame it on hysteria, all of her other friends do.
Naturally, “Juno knows the way.” As the viewer, I’m shocked these seemingly seasoned climbers still trust this woman. She is the one who got them into this death hole. They climb and struggle some more. NOPE. This was a bad way, a very bad way. They turn on their infrared camera to find that they have been led to the dining room/graveyard of the humanoids, and they stand knee-deep in a cave carpeted with spinal cords and assorted bones. GOOD JOB JUNO.
The gang makes more excellent decisions by panicking and screaming “HELLLOOOO? Is anybody out there?” In what is probably my favorite scene, a good 10 minutes of Thing Vs. Climber begins, as the group is split up. It’s a treat to watch Juno wrestle with the things, and using her ice pick axe for more than ice, all backlit with a red-glowing flare that someone dropped beforehand. But—uh oh—Juno whirls around and accidentally stabs one of the girls in the throat (apparently her name was not memorable enough to have any staying power) and then heroically leaves the victim behind without another word. Classy.
While the other girls have been scattered, Sarah remains deep in the lair. It’s here that she learns that the things are blind, and as long as she doesn’t make any noise, she goes undetected. With her infrared camera and tucked semi-safely in a crevice, she gets to watch the things dig into Holly’s body and moan their way through dinner.
The things eventually leave, and Sarah goes through an overtly obvious regeneration process. Drenched in red light, Sarah takes…something from Holly’s corpse (was that a rib?) and something from another skeleton’s thermos and finds a way to make fire! She finds the slowly dying victim of Juno’s, and naturally is told in a dying whisper, “Don’t… trust…. Juno.” Per last request, Sarah ends her friend’s life by SMASHING HER THROAT IN? Don’t you have a knife, Sarah? Good grief so much drama.
Just as it quiets, one of the cave creatures is at Sarah’s back, but it’s a child, and Sarah kills it swiftly. So then the angry mother bear appears. We see her clearly with breasts, feminine features, and long nasty-ass cave hair. The mother sees her slain child and lunges for Sarah. The mothers tumble into a cesspool of slime, blood, waste, and old water. I squirmed through a silent 10+ seconds of extremely vaginal, head-first emergence from the crimson slime. Unbeknownst to Sarah, the thing is in there with her, and they struggle until Sarah is able to shove an antler through the thing’s temple. Sarah rises victorious having killed the mother and then the father as well, as he apparently swung by having heard the commotion. With the nuclear family now dead, a torch aflame fashioned from her friend’s broken off rib, and coated in blood, Sarah has clearly been reborn, and will basically look like Carrie until the end of the movie. (De Palma, 1976).
The film goes back to green again as we check in on the other girls. Believing it to be the way out, the remaining three have been following some handy directions painted on the walls that Juno found, but it totally leads to a deeper more concentrated lair of crawling hungry things. If the first lair was their dining room, this second lair is their rec room; just restless hungry teenagers looking for something to eat. Oops.
They try and backtrack. It doesn’t look good. That rope bridge they made in the beginning ends up making a very fine corpse holder for one of the climbers, her body dangling and bent back like a kid doing a gymnastics bridge, and blood spewing from her body. As the other climber is dragged off by the things, Juno is the last one left for all she knows.
The shrieks of those things are heard nearby, so Sarah stabs Juno where it would do the most damage (the leg), then splits. Sarah sees daylight in the distance and runs toward it, with the sounds of Juno being devoured in the background. As Sarah runs toward the exit, I’m literally standing up in front of my television, cheering her on.
I remember being filled with joy seeing this next scene for the first time. We see desperate fingers reaching out from the earth into the daylight for the first time in 70 dark minutes. Orchestral music billows, Sarah kisses the green earth and scrambles to her car, driving away as fast as the car can carry here. I thought—she did it. It has all been worth it. She got out. ONE of you survived. My hands were on my head in amazement the first time I watched this, and now the second time.
And then that creeping silence sets in again as she pulls over the car to the side of the road. No, no, something isn’t right. A truck whizzes by, and the shot pans over to the passenger seat where dead, blue-faced Juno sits, staring at screaming Sarah and signifying nothing has changed—Sarah is still back in that cave about to be eaten. What a delightful hallucination. What a romp. Cut to black.
It’s 10 years after its release, and The Descent holds up better than most of its kind. The genre is tricky in that you really have one go to make a viewer’s heart race, and it should race. You can’t buy that kind of emotion, and effective horror thrillers should achieve that even after the second watch because it gets under your skin. This film does that. From start to finish, it’s an engaging, not-too-campy, highly watchable riot. One could try and make the argument that The Descent portrays women as catty and ultimately against each other, but I feel that would be reaching. The film really only has six characters, and all of them are accomplished, funny, resourceful, single women. There is no Prince Charming coming to save them in the end; it’s just them against nature in a Darwinian survival game, and it is an absolute pleasure to watch.