Neil Marshall’s second film, The Descent, despite its allusions to genre-films from the past thirty years as wide-ranging as Deliverance to The Thing, defies convention and brings its viewers to what is at once the most primal and terrifying of fears and yet an entirely new understanding of horror films.
The plot, like one of its major influences, Deliverance, is straightforward: a group of friends go off on an outdoor adventure and end up at the brinks of hell and madness. Specifically, after a horrible tragedy that ensued a year prior, namely the death of the family of the main character, Sarah, she and her group of friends go spelunking in deepest, darkest Appalachia and everything goes wrong. To start, they’re in a cave no one, or where they think no one, has ever been; it’s unmapped and completely new territory. No one knows where they are, and should they go missing, no one will know where to find them. The cave, or at least one tunnel, collapses, leaving them stranded in the dark (after quite possibly one of the most harrowing and claustrophobic scenes ever caught on film); they wander briefly through a few caverns to find an untold millennia-old cave painting depicting the mountain and two cave entrances. So there’s a way out. Hope. Well, that’s where the hope ends, unfortunately.
The people who painted this petroglyph, it seems, never left. Deep in the bowels of the mountain, things stir in the dark and the damp in nests of blood and bone. Adapting to their surroundings, the man-like creatures are blind, pale-skinned, and fast-moving creatures hunting with sound like bats and feed entirely on flesh, blood, and viscera. Early survival instincts kick in, and it’s every woman for herself. Sarah, of course, is also attempting to cope with the deaths of her daughter and husband, and, deep within the cave, hunted by these almost Lovecraftian-horrors, it takes her almost no time to leave the shackles of sanity behind, leaving her a blood-born killer (her “baptism” in a pool of blood and the flotsam and jetsam of animal fur and fat is a pretty revolting, if telling, scene).
The film preys on our fear of the dark; the basis of all of humanity’s fears for the past 35,000 years. All horror stories, and all horror films, owe the dark a tip of the hat. What we can’t see; what we can’t experience; what we can’t comprehend – from the vast, empty void of the closet at night to the unfathomable emptiness of black space – scares the shit out of us. The Descent uses this to full effect from the moment our heroines exit the light.
While I could be wrong about this, and I invite readers to offer their opinions, The Descent is, to the best of my knowledge, the first major horror film where the cast is essentially entirely women. The only men in the cast are some of the creatures they find in the cave and Sarah’s husband (who is also an adulterer; one thing I adore about the film is that this key point, that Sarah’s husband was having an affair with her “friend” Juno, is never said explicitly – for once a film doesn’t treat its audience like an utter idiot). Sarah’s husband is dead within minutes of the film’s opening, and we don’t encounter the creatures until about the halfway point. The creatures’ genders are largely irrelevant, however, as they’re just the beasts in the black. For nearly the entire film, the focus is on the women. I don’t believe I have ever seen this in a horror film; women in horror films are usually relegated to the tired trope of victim (and I’ve simply lost count how often this has happened in slasher films, in particular, during an act of coitus). This is in equal parts offensive and insulting. The Descent, however, and while I would never go so far as to say that it is a feminist masterpiece (it certainly isn’t), defies horror conventions from the very start placing the focus on character on women. Even in some films, Hellraiser and Alien spring to mind, where a strong-willed woman survives the horrors inflicted upon her and other characters, they’re rarely the main player*.
Marshall throws this nonsense out with The Descent and plays up a terrifying monster film with a cast of women, something I very much applaud. I wish more directors and writers would eschew convention like this, particularly in the world of genre films. Characters are often, at best, one-dimensional in many genre films, but studios shouldn’t add to this victim-culture and a base and crude metaphor equating sex and horrific violence, particularly against women.
*Yes, Ellen Ripley becomes the central focus of the Alien franchise, but in the first film, the only horror film of the four (not counting Prometheus or anything involving the lobster-faced Predators), the focus is spread across the entire crew until they’re all but decimated, when she finally takes the stage – she was also a man in the original script.