The Descent-Horror For A New Generation
Sarah's Primal State
A Descent Into the Caves of Madness
I always liked the title of the 2005 horror film, The Descent, because I always appreciated its double meaning. First, the obvious one-appropriate for the group of young, adventurous women descending into a dark and undisclosed cave, where who-knows-what, awaited them. But as the film progresses we see a different kind of a descent; the descent in to madness, with people coming to frightful endings in an underground hell, where people sometimes found that the worst demons inhabited their own minds.
Adventurous Day Turned Deadly
In the first scene of the movie, adventure buddies Sarah, Juno and Beth, were whitewater rafting in a rough river somewhere in Scotland. When they got to shore there was a subtly-implied love triangle between Sarah's close friend Juno and Sarah's husband (you may have missed that moment where he lovingly pulled Juno out of the raft and helped take off her helmet). The shocking truth and reality of the relationship was revealed during the crescendo of the film, when Sarah and Juno's mutual hatred amounted to a Clash of Titans-- two lone survivors, willing to maim each other with their remaining caving tools in order to survive.
Adventure and Loss
Neil Marshall was a pretty active (mainly horror) director during the first few years of the New Millennium, with films such as Dog Soldiers, Doomsday, The Descent and Centurion to his credit. Marshall was known for keeping his budgets low and for filming in Scotland. This often led to a better atmospheric depth not often present in Hollywood blockbuster films. In The Descent, the Highlands and woodlands of Scotland were ideal stand-ins for The Blue Ridge Mountains, where the group of adventurous ladies got together for a caving expedition, one year after the main character Sarah lost her husband and daughter in a horrific car accident. The horror of those violent fatalities catapulted her into an understandably fragile state, with frequent night terrors and a perpetual bottle of anti-psychotic pills on her night stand.
Horror, Loss, Hallucinations
As Sarah and her family were driving to their hotel after the rafting trip, they were in a shocking car accident, killing Sarah's husband and daughter. After the accident, Sarah awoke in the hospital. After realising the shock of the situation, she is running through the hospital corridors, as if in a dream sequence. She has hallucinations of her daughter blowing out the candles of her birthday cake. Juno, witnessing Sarah's distress, dropped to her knees in tears--her lips quivering. We are not sure if she is grieving for Sarah's loss of husband and child, or the loss of a lover. Without further explanation, she races back to America without consoling Sarah, leaving her with her one, true friend Beth to support her through her grief.
Say Cheese! Or Sausage!
In the first big scene after the car accident, we see a group of extreme-sports minded young women descend on Juno's small hunting cabin for a weekend of heavy drinking and caving. This is a group of cavers, climbers, base jumpers and general adventurers from various countries including Holly, from Ireland who is the craziest, most ADHD out of the bunch. Her claim to fame is that she ran out of things to jump off in Galway and is therefore in the United States to find some real sport. She is also, according to exhibition leader Rebecca, 'Juno's protégé'. Rebecca and Juno have started an adventure company in which they provide leadership and guidance for various organized athletic adventures. Rebecca and her med student sister Sam are Dutch, and Sarah and Beth are Scottish. Juno seems to be the daughter of someone important, but is definitely the most mysterious one in the groups. After hilarious segments of bonding, drinking, and pot-smoking, the girls settle down for the night. They are all excited about the next days' adventures. Some express concern over Sarah's mental health, but Beth assures everyone that she is fine. We know at this point in the film, that Beth regards Juno as "a selfish cow" for running away to America after the accident. The next morning they take a happy group picture of themselves before the excursion, the last group picture that would ever be taken of the group together
Juno is a mysterious character from the beginning. Not only does she share a tender moment with Sarah's husband right before the car accident in which he is killed, she does a very peculiar and unwise thing when the cavers embark on their expedition. Everyone is under the assumption that the group is exploring a system known as Boreham caverns. And as every caver knows, you always bring the caving manual with you so that you avoid getting lost and that you always file a flight plan, telling people the route you took in case you went missing after 24 hours. Well, Juno not only leaves the book in the glove compartment of the truck, she conveniently forgets to inform the others they are not going to Boreham caverns. Instead she plans on surprising them with a brand-new cave system -- one that they will name after themselves. So the group hikes to the woods to their destination, as Rebecca, the safety girl spouts off a laundry list of possible side effects of sensory deprivation inside of the cave.
As they get to mouth of the cave, they are amazed that there is nothing more than a huge hole in the ground and that they will be rappelling down over 100 feet. It is beautiful when they get down there, until Sarah stumbles into a nest of bats that come flying out, scaring her profusely. As Sarah is looking around, she notices what looks like claw marks on the cave wall, but keeps it to herself. After she calms down, they start down a tunnel and begin their descent in to the cave.
After locating the next passage, the group continues. It is a tight squeeze through a narrow, wet hole, but most people are through. As Sarah attempts it though, she becomes dangerously stuck and her panic intensifies. Her friend Beth returns to her and tries to get her to relax. There is hardly time for this, however, because the tunnel begins to cave in. Sarah gets out of there in time, but two things happen. The first thing is that the rope bag is buried in the rubble. And the second, worse calamity, is that the tunnel is sealed, with no apparent way out.
This is when Rebecca interrogates Juno about finding their way out through another exit. Juno is sheepish about it, and when she asks what the guidebook says, Rebecca figures out that there is no book, because this is not Boreham caverns. Juno says she wanted to surprise Sarah and find a new cave to name after them. Rebecca maintains that this is simply Juno's ego trip, and is disgusted.
Juno's reply is that if they stay in this cavern-like room they will die, and that their only solution is to keep going. Everyone else has no choice but to follow.
Crawling Through Narrow Spaces
They get into a large chamber to eat lunch, each marveling at the beauty of the cave. Sarah has a moment of being a little freaked out, and when the others ask her about it, she says she is going to look for the next passage. This is the first moment when she catches a glimpse of something that looks like a man. But she says nothing and keeps going.
Cave of Your Worst Nightmares
The further the group of women ventures into the cave, the stranger and more dangerous it becomes. They stumble upon a cliff that seems to go down thousands of feet, which they must rappel across. As they are going across, Rebecca notices there is other climbing equipment attached to the wall that looks like its a hundred years old.
They find another cavern with what looks like cave paintings that seems to reveal that there is more than one entrance and exit to the cave. As they continue, panic begins to ensue.
Holly stupidly begins to navigate too quickly down a tunnel, falls down some kind of chute and breaks her leg so badly that the bone is sticking out.
The women convene in the spot where this happens. Rebecca's younger half-sister Sam, who is in medical school takes charge and makes the girls get Holly out of the water so she can set her leg.
It at this moment that Sarah sees another creature that looks like a man in the distance and finally says something to the group. She is discredited
They drag Holly and her broken leg to what seems like a dry chamber. But when they light a flare and look through the infrared of the camera, they see hundreds of animal bones in what looks like a feeding chamber for some kind of carnivores. As they use the infrared to look around, they see what looks like some sort of white-skinned humanoid freak behind them.
This is not just some humanoid freak. It's a blind, carnivorous cave-dweller. And before anyone can say boo, this creature drags Holly away and begins to tear her body apart and eat her.
At this point the girls scatter. From the howls going on in the cave, it is obvious that there are many more of these creatures.
At this time the girls have split up. They are without lights, other than their head lamps and a few orange glow sticks and flares. The have no combat skills and no obvious weapons. Silence is their weapon, but this is unfamiliar terrain and they are terrified.
Beth, Juno and Betrayal
The second casualty is Beth. She has remained in the chamber of bones. Juno, meanwhile, has learned quickly to use her ice ax as a weapon and has killed several of these 'crawlers'. In an unfortunate turn of events, Juno hears a noise coming in her direction and quickly strikes what she thinks is one of the creatures. This was a horrible mistake, because when she shines the light on the carnage, realizes she has just stabbed Beth through the neck, which will now cause Beth to undergo a painful and very slow death in the ghastly room. Leaving her for dead, Juno disappears into the depths of the cave, not realizing that in the process, Beth has pulled off her necklace, which provides clear evidence that Juno was sleeping with Sarah's husband.
In the meantime, Sarah has suddenly turned into a cave warrior. She has dispatched many cave monsters with her own caving tools and is smeared with blood from disguising herself in a blood pit whilst hiding from the crawlers. She now looks like a fierce, blood covered soldier, not unlike Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
When she discovers Beth dying, Beth tells her that the culprit was Juno and shows her the necklace. Beth begs her to put her out of her misery and Sarah reluctantly bashes her best friend in the skull with a rock, taking the necklace.
She spends the remainder of the cave scenes hunting for Juno. Meanwhile the other characters all meet horrifying deaths.
Juno and Sarah finally meet in a cavern. As they stare each other down, the cavern slowly fills with cave crawlers. As a way to save herself and to avenge Beth, Sarah takes a cave pick and wounds Juno severely in the leg in the hope of incapacitating her and giving the monsters a whiff of fresh blood. Then she takes a side route out of the chamber.We assume that as a result of the injury, Juno will die and be killed and eaten by the crawlers.
The last two scenes leave a great deal of ambiguity about what happens to Sarah. Does she survive? Does she stay in the cave?
In one of the last scenes, we see light shining in the cave and Sarah crawling as fast as she can towards the light, only to emerge from the hole in the ground much like a rebirth.
She runs as fast as she can back to the woods and to the car, where she gets in and races away for dear life.
At some point she stops the car and vomits. When she gets back in the car, there is Juno, sitting in the passenger seat. Surprise!
Descent into Madness
But if you think Sarah is free, think again. In the last scene of the movie we see Sarah back in the cave, with a look of insanity on her face. What she sees is a birthday cake with candles as if in celebration of her dead daughter Jessie's birthday. Has she remained in the cave and gone insane? Has she descended into madness?
This is the ending that totally baffles and leads me back to the title. Descent into the cave or a descent into madness? If you play the DVD with the Director's Commentary, you will learn more about the scene.
And just when you think you have figured out the answer, there is a sequel. And although it is not directed by Neil Marshall, it is still under his guidance, but with a bigger budget. Stay tuned!