The Descent: Survival of the Fittest

The Descent Sarah blood

I love horror movies. I’m fairly certain that some day I will be caught in the middle of some horrible disaster, and I need to be prepared to survive it. This is why I regularly quote “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why” in casual conversation (fun fact: did you know that most plane crashes are survivable? And that the people who survive are usually the ones who paid attention during the security briefing and read that brochure?).

I think that’s the root of my fascination with horror movies – imagining every possible situation I could be placed in, and figuring out how to survive. The Descent fits perfectly into this self-education.

Sarah has just finished whitewater rafting with her friends Juno and Beth in Scotland, and is on her way home, when a brutal car crash kills her husband and daughter. One year later, still somewhat fragile, she reunites with those 2 friends, along with 3 others, to recapture the excitement of their more adventurous days.

The Descent cave entrance

As the leader of the pack, Juno secretly takes the group to an unmapped cave system rather than the well-explored tourist trap they had planned on. Her well-intentioned (though possibly self-serving) deception comes to light when a cave-in leaves them trapped two miles underground with no known exits. The women struggle to keep their wits about them as claustrophobia, mistrust, and mysterious cave-dwellers start to close in.

In the oppressive darkness, the imaginative camerawork keeps the scenery engaging, even when all you see is a frightened face. Using spotlights from headlamps, green glow sticks, red flares, a makeshift torch and even an infra-red camera, creative new ways to combat the dark are utilized.

The Descent Juno Beth Sarah cave

While it may have been somewhat of a gimmick, using an all-female cast was a brilliant decision in this case. Eliminating sexual tension (though many viewers would debate that point) and gender politics allowed the filmmakers to focus on the interpersonal group dynamic, adequately established before the action, and individual reactions to panic and desperation. There is no underlying current of a wilting flower sheltered by her boyfriend, no one considered less than capable, no one assumed to be the man in charge. None hesitate to step up when they’re needed.

The Descent

I was blown away by how capable these women were. It was established early on that they were at least competent climbers, but to see this in action was simply astounding to me (particularly since I’ve recently done some indoor wall-climbing; it takes a muscular endurance you wouldn’t believe!). When faced with a gaping chasm ahead, one of the women free-climbs over the ceiling of the cave, adding cams (support clips) as she goes. Another woman’s hands are torn to shreds as she clings to a rope, refusing to let her companion fall. Later, when one inevitably sustains a gruesome injury, the women quickly and calmly come to her aid while the medical student treats the wound. When one starts to balk at the sight a harshly snapped, “Not here!” brings her back to task.

cave dweller gif the descent

As if the terror of claustrophobia, injury, and dying batteries weren’t enough, the women soon face the fact that they are not alone in the caves. They are surrounded by vicious, fast-moving feral creatures, stalking the women as prey.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

This is where they turn on their true survival mode. In the initial chaos of an attack, Juno alone steadfastly refuses to leave her injured friend behind. She fights ferociously against two of the “crawlers,” frantically defending herself and her barely-alive friend with a steel pick. After finally succeeding in killing one and chasing off the other, she whirls around and accidentally stabs Beth through the neck.

Juno The Descent

This is apparently meant to be the point where we see how self-interested Juno is. Having already led the girls to probable death and carried on an affair with Sarah’s late husband – a subplot kept refreshingly subtle and never stated outright – she has now fatally wounded one of them, and subsequently leaves her to die. But actress Natalie Mendez, who until that point played Juno with a casual realism, wordlessly portrays the shock and resignation Juno feels when she sees what she has done and recognizes that she must move forward in order to survive.

The Descent Love Each Day Juno's necklace

Sarah later finds Beth, who tells her what Juno has done. She hands Sarah the necklace she tore from Juno’s neck after the accidental attack; it reads “Love Each Day,” the personal creed of Sarah’s late husband. Suddenly Juno’s lingering looks the day of the accident, and her pained assertion that “We all lost something in that crash,” make sense.

Sarah the descent gif

At Beth’s request, Sarah euthanizes her, which is her turning point – she is forced to shut down her emotions and focus solely on escape at any cost.

In the end, only Sarah and Juno are left alive. Both are survivors; Juno due to her gritty determination to do what is necessary, while Sarah has seemingly nothing left to lose. In their struggle, they begin to lose traces of their own humanity. As they battle the crawlers side-by-side, blood-soaked and crazed Sarah becomes so frantic, so violent in her desperate self-defense that she actually rips at the crawler with her teeth, demonstrating the animalistic tendencies bubbling to the surface – possibly those same tendencies that made the crawlers what they are in the first place.

As this is a horror movie, it seems the woman with the higher moral ground must be the one to make it through. But by this point, both women are ruthless. Sarah wordlessly reveals to Juno that she knows of her betrayal – both with Beth and with Sarah’s husband – then stabs her through the leg and leaves her behind as the crawlers close in. Juno is seemingly punished for her pride, deceitfulness, and self-preservation instincts. It’s almost disappointing to see her fall, but the film is so brutal, so visceral, so invested in the moment, that I accepted every development, just hoping to survive with someone, anyone, alive.

sarah survives the descent

Having abandoned Juno to her fate, Sarah tumbles down a rocky shaft and looks up to find a mountain of bones – leading to the exit. She scrambles to the top, runs back to her car, and drives far down the road,  leaving the hellish caves behind her.

The American cut ends here; with Sarah briefly haunted by a vision of Juno following her triumphant exodus. But the far more effective version is the original: after the shock of “seeing” Juno, Sarah reawakens inside the cave. Here, she once again hallucinates her daughter, and with a faint smile, is consigned to the darkness.

The Descent group photo Holly Becca Sarah Juno Holly Beth

I’ve seen my fair share of horror movies, but I can honestly say that this one took me by surprise. Not necessarily through the plot or even the refreshing take on female casting, but in its portrayal of events as simply a fact of life the characters must come to terms with and move past. It reminded me of the “milling” effect described in “The Unthinkable;” often people don’t survive disasters because they stand around talking about what is happening, asking what other people are doing about it, wondering what they should do (“Was that an explosion? Do you think we should evacuate? Let’s check the TV.”). In horror films this usually manifests in an emotional breakdown, followed by a leader rallying the troops and saying harshly that “I’m getting us out of here.” This may culminate in a tearful confession of past betrayals and pleading for forgiveness. No such melodrama here; what seems almost like poor acting by Juno in the trailer is in context extremely effective underacting that makes the film more realistic.

….So realistic that I immediately bought a Sportrock groupon to hone a new horror movie survival skill. Rule #1: Be prepared.

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18 Comments

    1. Definitely! When the women squeezed through that tiny crawl space I nearly hyper-ventilated. You really feel like you’re stuck in there with them because of the tight camera work and otherwise pitch-black environment.

  1. I had never heard of this horror film until someone told me about it recently, and turned out to be the surprise package of my Halloween marathon. Good stuff, I really felt I was trapped in that cave with them. Ideally this is a film to watch knowing as little as possible beforehand, no trailer for me, so good to see the spoiler warning.
    Interesting analysis but there’s one thing I’m confused by, you talk about eliminating sexual tension, but the affair you also mention, isn’t that sexual to some degree?
    That’s a good point about the animalistic tendencies of the girls.

    1. Since the husband was out of the picture well before they entered the caves, I felt like the affair served more as a way to give these characters some level of depth – Juno is motivated by guilt and a desire to redeem herself, but when her actions come to light at the worst possible moment it turns Sarah completely against her. Plus it gives Sarah a new development to respond to and be shaped by; her grief and anger make her ruthless, and also drive her a little insane towards the end.

      I mentioned that some viewers think there was sexual tension because a NYT review and a few bloggers/tumblrs thought all the sweat and heavy breathing among the women was somewhat “suggestive.” I didn’t get that at all, but I guess you could read this movie several different ways if you wanted.

  2. Good review Tippi. It’s a pretty messed-up flick, but one that shows how much you can do with a tight space, not-so original premise, and pretty strong batch of female characters that you actually care about and can stick up for themselves for once.

    1. Yes! Following this up with The Descent 2 really highlights how small changes in an otherwise standard movie made all the difference. It almost goes point by point to show how average The Descent COULD have been: co-ed, typical movie lighting (i.e. well lit for the audience, the actors pretend it’s pitch black), melodrama and unsubtle dialogue.

      A lot of what’s great about this movie is so understated you might miss it if you’re not watching with a keen eye.

  3. What a terrific review. This is not only one of my favorite horrors but also one of my favorite movies. I love the hints of sarah’s insanity being suggested throughout the movie and that original ending, apparantly the sequel ruins it so I never saw it.

    1. Thanks! I agree, the fact that Sarah’s delusions begin so early, even before they enter the cave, adds an extra layer of tension and makes her “descent” into madness feel like a logical character progression rather than a cheap plot device.

      And you’re right to skip the sequel.. In continuing this story it destroys everything that’s special about it.

  4. Epic review of a great, great horror film. I’m glad you distinguished between the two endings, the American cut I’m still a little baffled by. I mean, the original is so obviously the better of the two, it’s a shame that so many people saw the film with everything ending peachy-keen. Oh well. Either way, a freakily great flick.

    1. I had no idea an American version even existed until a friend asked me about it later! I agree, it makes no sense at all and completely destroys the overall effect of the movie; the final shot in the dark is so haunting and really highlights how low these women have fallen, figuratively and literally. Plus as Sati pointed out, Sarah’s mental deterioration is a strong underlying theme that added a wonderful layer of complexity to bookmark the plot.

    1. I hadn’t even heard of it till this year, which blows my mind; why don’t more people talk about how great this movie is?! I mentioned it to one person who said “Oh is that the chick movie?” blech. Hope it’s not getting overlooked for seeming too gimmicky.

      1. I didn’t realize you hadn’t heard of it before this year! I saw it in theaters back in ’06 or whenever it came out…probably the last terrifying movie I’ve seen in theaters…

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