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The Descent

The Descent

Neil Marshall, 2005

I have seen this film several times, but when I watched it again this weekend, I really focused on allegory. Plenty has been said about this film in regards to acting (above average for a horror flick) and the ballsy, sort of bleak ending (if you watch the proper ending), but since this film has been around for a while, I will skip the usual angles for review and just chomp into the metaphors. This review is more for fans of the film who have already seen it, and not so much new viewers. If you haven't seen this film, dive in and return for some thoughts on what it all means.


The Descent doesn't do anything terribly original, to be sure, but at no point does it fall into any typical horror pitfalls, and the director keeps his hand off the usual tension release valves for the entire film. So, so many horrors will attempt to alleviate tension with a little comedy or a conversation here and there with a lighter tone. This film has a crushing grip that never relents, and a completely bleak ending that pulls no punches. It's also incredibly rich with subtext.

I guess it's fitting that the film is about subterranean concepts as allegory for grief and betrayal, because most horror flicks are concerned with surface issues: the way people are killed, the cute blonde bimbo that only seems to be able to scream and fall over, the underwear model stars, and convention, convention, convention.

Beneath the brutal horror is a heavy personal subtext of grief and loss, with the darkness and claustrophobia of the cave an inspired metaphor for the confusion and pain of Sarah. In grief, we tend to describe ourselves as "lost", "in the dark", "trapped", or "confused". We don't know which way is up. Here, that feeling is played out physically and quite viscerally in a creative and potent way.

The Descent is almost an Anti-horror film, systematically destroying horror convention while giving us a glimpse of what real horror is like. You think you are getting a conventional ending, with justice being finally dished out to the guilty, but no...the entire hero concept is sort of flipped on his head, and the main character goes almost directly from victim to antagonist in the final scene, with the film's alleged antagonist sliding in and out of heroism for almost the entire run time. Both character arcs are almost completely subverted by film's end, and the final confrontation is subtly acted and leaves the viewer feeling ambivalent about both characters; this fact alone pushes The Descent up above most horror films. I would go so far as to say the character Juno is one of the more complex characters in any horror film, ever.

Another convention that gets flipped is that all the horror stems from only good intentions. There is no malefic secret plan, no witch among the peasants bringing evil down; no clear-cut evil with designs on the other characters doom. Juno made bad calls in the past, but out of all the women, she wants Sarah to heal more than any of them, as her actions clearly show in the third reel. This is a woman almost completely sustained by guilt and remorse, driven to repent for her wrongs, even if it means talking crazy risks to do so. All these woman genuinely want to help Sarah - what horror flick has a set-up like that? Not many.

Speaking once again of convention: I know people are all aboard the good ship Joss Whedon lately, and his subverting of typical film stereotypes, especially in regards to females, but this is the most Whedon-esque of all, and Joss had nothing to do with this project! There is not one weak, two-dimensional lady in the entire caving group, and the sole male character is relegated to nothing but a back-story for why they are going on the trip in the first place. The ensemble cast is equally fleshed out, and each character has their own reasoning for going, be it complete altruism or shared guilt on some level or another for the events that shattered Sarah's life.

The sad thing is that they succeed, but they all pay with their lives. Sarah is finally able to face the ghost of her daughter with a smile, her pain conquered, her grief played out. Too bad she is stark raving mad by then, her descent into madness complete.