The Descent (2008)
Written and directed by Neil Marshall, The Descent (2005) follows six friends who go on a caving trip one year after a horrible accident leaves one of the group’s, Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald), husband and daughter dead. Another of the group, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), is the leader of the trip and she intentionally takes the women to a cave system that has yet to be explored. After a cave-in blocks the way they entered, the women travel deeper into the caves to find a way out and run into mutant carnivores along the way.
The filmmakers originally intended for the cast to be mixed, but Marshall decided to make the characters entirely female as he realized that horror films rarely have an all-female cast. This is in direct contrast to Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) where the cast is almost entirely male.
Many critics mention the similarities of the cave system the women explore to the womb and given that the cast is entirely female, it’s not that far of a stretch. Film critics Kim Newman and James Marriott state The Descent is “an intensely claustrophobic evocation of womb anxiety, a female response to the all-male horrors of Dog Soldiers. ‘There’s only one way out of this chamber and that’s down the pipe,’ declares Juno, and this is one of the most impressively messy births committed to film” (324-25).
Given that Sarah loses her family at the beginning of the movie, she also loses her identity as a wife and mother. You could view The Descent as Sarah not knowing herself without her husband and daughter and she must be reborn as an individual. Losing Beth, her closest friend, after Juno accidentally kills her is the last straw for Sarah. It’s after Beth’s death that Sarah fights off her first cave-dweller and we see that epic scene where Sarah rises like a badass from the pool of blood and guts and filth. Much like a newborn who emerges from the womb covered in blood and traces of the vernix, so does Sarah rise for that nasty pool; her literal rebirth.
You could also see The Descent just as a story of revenge as it “features a heroic woman who, upon discovering the murderous betrayal of a friend, proceeds to enact a monstrous vengeance on her” (Wester 309). Sarah is still grieving when she goes on the caving trip and, as the viewer sees early on and as Sarah eventually finds out, Juno was having an affair with Sarah’s husband at the time of his death. On top of this, Juno is the one who takes them to uncharted caves in the first place and then she accidentally kills Beth and leaves her to die. By the time Sarah finds this out, she probably feels like Juno has taken everything from her, so, naturally, she gets pissed and exacts her revenge.
I am a big fan of The Descent, although I wasn’t so on-board with the film when I first saw it. At the time of my first viewing, I was in high school and I just couldn’t relate to Sarah (although I’m not a mother or wife now either, I understand her better now that I’m older). At first, I thought she was being a bit harsh on Juno, who clearly feels all the guilt about having an affair and leaving Sarah in her time of need. And, to be honest, Beth’s death was truly an accident, Juno didn’t intentionally hurt her, and she was just freaked out by what she did and ran.
That’s the beauty of this movie, though. There are just so many ways you can view The Descent, it’s a movie that just as deep and multifaceted as a woman is, and again, just like women, has a lot going on under the surface – sorry fellas.
Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.
Wester, Maisha. “Torture Porn and the Uneasy Feminisms: Rethinking (Wo)Men in Eli Roth's Hostel Films.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 2nd ed., University of Texas Press, 2015, pp. 305–326.