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There are two kinds of monsters in Neil Marshall’s “The Descent”: the terrifying humanoid “crawlers” that populate the twisting tunnels of an uncharted Appalachian cave system — and the half-dozen women that make the ill-fated decision to spelunk into said uncharted Appalachian cave system, in search of deep bonding and athletic entertainment.
Marshall’s gory 2006 British horror movie follows a group of friends who set out on their adventure for emotional catharsis: One of their own is reeling from a year-old tragedy that opens the film — only to find a terror beneath the surface far worse than anything they’ve experienced in the normal world. But it’s not just the bloodthirsty cave dwellers they have to contend with; it’s the very people who seem worth saving who end up doing the most damage.
Building its story around six female stars was a revolutionary idea at the time of its creation — hell, any of them could be the final girl! — and Marshall’s film quickly zooms in on a clever idea, excavating the fraught bonds of the women alongside the increasingly claustrophobic caves they are traipsing through. The result is a film that upends old ideas about how its female horror stars should act, nestling the concept of “badass” (the film boasts more pickaxe-swinging ladies than on a minute to minute basis than any other in recent memory) neatly alongside plain old “bad.”
Feminist in its intention and execution, “The Descent” isn’t just uninterested in deifying its female stars, it actually revels in allowing them to be messy, terrible, selfish people, even when they are pushed into the kinds of situations we’d like to assume bring out the best in people. Centered around Sarah (Shauna Macdonald in a star-making performance that somehow didn’t actually make her a star), the film opens with a chilling prologue that sees Sarah’s husband and young daughter killed off after a whitewater rafting adventure.
That’s where “The Descent” starts. One year later, Sarah’s pals are eager to get her mind off the impending anniversary, and hit upon an obvious idea: spelunking! As the convoluted — and, as it turns out, not exactly mapped — cave system begins to ensnare the women, literal monsters lurk just outside the frame and monstrous emotions and secrets begin to emerge. Built into “The Descent” and its six (human, and to a fault) leading ladies are emotional horrors and long-held grudges that impact the choices they make when finally forced to confront the more traditional baddies intent on killing them in a subterranean hellscape.
While Sarah remains the film’s focal point throughout, Marshall and Mendoza’s depiction of Juno is the most captivating exploration in “The Descent,” one that twists her from lackluster BFF into a baddie on par with worst of the crawlers. Her crimes are myriad, emotional and physical — and they’re carried out against various members of her party with increasingly shocking results.
While Juno is initially presented as some sort of extreme sport-loving badass, “The Descent” applies that superpower to thrilling, grisly ends. Marshall, who also wrote the film, chooses to take Sarah somewhere more horrific and terrible than any of the many (still horrific, definitely terrible) sequences that see the crawlers picking off their prey. The real monsters are the ones who descended into the cave, not the ones already there, and “The Descent” is a bloodier, rawer horror film for it. (Minor spoilers ahead.)
The film was a box office hit when it was released in 2006, earning nearly $60 million in worldwide returns. Inevitably, it spawned a much less successful sequel just three years later, one that followed Sarah after the events of the first film (with some light retconning to do away with Marshall’s ending, which felt far more final than the one trotted out for the followup). While the film puts a new wrinkle into Sarah and Juno’s story, it’s also invested in less successful subplots sprung from far less compelling tropes than anything found in its predecessor. (See: creepy old miner with nefarious plans!) So stick to just the original — it’s got serious scares and enough twists for an entire franchise, and when it’s over, you’ll realize that one movie was enough.
“The Descent” is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.