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He descends, She descends into Neil Marshall’s The Descent

Written by: The CinCitizens

Neil Marshall's new thriller pits scary, sub-terranean bat people against tall, beautiful, athletic, thrill-seeking women. The Red Baron and CC2k's horror chick team up to analyze it in this advance review.


ImagePaula Haifley (CC2k's horror chick): You don’t find a lot of good albino characters in movies these days. The best albino on film has to be Paul Bettany. Scary as fuck, even in a so-so movie where he goes MacGregor (my new word for a hot man getting completely naked in a movie – that’s right, I invented it) and the audience is cheated out of the good bits. My second favorite albino, the albino in The Princess Bride. Hands down. He should be in the top two on everyone’s albino list, even if your dad is an albino too. My third favorite albinos are the creatures in The Descent. I especially like the way the characters are introduced. All of a sudden they’re there, and then they’re gone. But as with most movie creatures, they’re scarier when you see less of them. I guess you could say the creatures were going MacGregor too, if they were hot. There was one part with a close-up on a creature’s stomach where I swear I saw the bat-thing’s scary white light-saber (another phrase you’ll soon hear everyone saying, goes hand in hand with “Going MacGregor”), but the camera work was so shaky I think I was mistaken.

The Red Baron: Yes, Paula. You were mistaken. Rather than a white “light saber,” I believe it was his bat-man “utility belt.” Keeping Tony Lazlo’s recent review of Hostel in mind – something I’ve really come to admire in horror films in recent years is a dedication to non-supernatural stories and creatures. Neil Marshall’s The Descent is a wonderful new addition to this pantheon. A group of best girlfriends – who have an annual tradition of outdoors adventure decide to go spelunking in some Appalachian caves in North Carolina. Seems like fun, right? Camping trips in the Appalachians never end in terrifiyingly violent bloodbaths, right? Not so much. Very soon into the girls’ trip inside the caves, it’s revealed that the organizer of the trip took it upon herself to mislead her friends, taking them to an uncharted cave system instead of the safe, completely-mapped system. A cave-in occurs, blocking the way they came in. In their struggle to find an alternate way out, they come across the albino bat-people, and are engaged in mortal combat with them for the remainder of the film. The movie is essentially pure plot: friends enter cave, friends get stuck in cave, friends encounter scary humanoid bat creatures in the process of looking for a way out of the cave, many of them get killed during their escape. But something that could be underrated in this movie are the characterizations. First of all, it’s an entirely female cast. And Marshall appears to have graduated from the Ellen Ripley school of female action heroes – never is there any sort of overt or subtle pandering to the audience about the fact that it’s an all-women cast. The movie matter-of-factly portrays the women as innately strong, athletic, resourceful and smart, rather than making a point of proving that they’re just as capable in this situation than men. The movie is also about the bond of friendship, and how said bond can be tested and even broken in the face of a potentially deadly scenario, like say, oh, scary white subterranean bat-men trying to eat you. Paula, you’re female, right? Any thoughts on the authenticity of the female characters in this movie?

PH: Yes, I am a woman. Thanks for finally noticing. The striking thing about the female characters in this film is that they’re just characters, the woman part doesn’t really come up, and it doesn’t need to be dealt with. Well, except for the silly sub-plot with the American main character cheating with the Scotch husband of the other main character. Really, why would you have a long-term affair with not only the husband of one of your best pals, but a man that lives an ocean way? There aren’t enough husbands in your own country to cheat with? And that could have easily been a man cheating with his guy friend’s wife if the spelunkers were all cast as men. The only time that it seems to matter that the spelunkers are women is when one of them has to stick carabineers into a rock ceiling, hanging free above a huge drop. As she strings lines so that she and her friends can find an exit, using only the strength in her arms to keep her from plummeting to her death, I held my breath. That was the scariest scene in the film, and helped along by the fact that the spelunkers weren’t big beefy guys but small yet strong women who just might not have enough upper body strength to make it across. Marshall also uses the fact that women are smaller to good advantage in the pre-monster caving, having the ladies squeeze their way through holes with barely enough room to breathe. The ladies snaking through these tiny passages, and the inevibtle one getting stuck in a tight corner, was much scarier than any bat-monsters. I found myself wondering what I would do if I got stuck in such a tight spot, imagining panic attacks, asphyxiation and starvation, then reassuring myself that I would never put myself in that position, so it wouldn’t matter. Which part scared you the most?

RB: Hmm … you being a woman sure does explain a lot. Especially that no-Adam’s-Apple thing. The scariest part of the film for me was the memories it evoked of my own caving experiences. Growing up in the Rocky Mountains, my mom and I spent a few days on group spelunking trips. I remember crawling through spaces that tight, that dark, that uncertain about what lay ahead. In situations like that – much like swimming in the deep ocean – where you are left in a foreign ecosystem and realize how small and puny you are to the forces of nature, you’re really reduced to a primal bundle of nerves. All your brain is able to process is : am I safe? Will a stronger predator attack me? Will I survive? Will Archie ever get with Veronica? Great horror movies take you to this place – a satisfyingly brief return of our most elemental biological modes – the fight-or-flight instinct: attack your predator, or run like hell away from it. It might be an unfair advantage for me to relate to this movie on a personal level because I have some spelunking experience, but i think that anyone can relate to a movie like The Descent on this instinctual level due to the realistic nature of the movie’s substance. People know that caves exist, and that some thrillseekers dare to explore said caves’ innermost reaches. Non-spelunkers can enjoy the movie on a “God, I sure am glad I’ve never gone caving before” level as much as non-non-spelunkers can enjoy it on a “God, what the fuck was I thinking, going into these caves with no concept of what might be waiting for me in there.” Another school Neil Marshall seems to have graduated from is the University of Paul Verhoeven Directing Robocop. Knowing that the audience watching Robocop for the first time will never have a chance to sympathize with Murphy on a personal level – Verhoeven admitted that he made the Murphy death scene so brutal and graphic that the audience would have no choice but to sympathize with him, and the physical pain he was forced to endure prior to death. The same applies to The Descent. Whether or not you relate to the women in the film isn’t of as much consequence as your ability to relate to the pain and fear they’re subjected to. That being said – I thought the character development was satisfying, especially with the events of the film unfolding within a 24 – 36 hour period. Paula, your thoughts on characterizations? How about that scene where the Asian chick accidentally impales one of her friends in the neck after slaying several bat-people?

PH: It was nice. Stereotypical, sure, but you couldn’t see it coming. That’s what I like about this film, how Marshall uses established conventions (alone in an enclosed dark space with monsters somewhere around you, creatures that can’t find you if you don’t move, etc) and still makes them scary. I thought that the lead falling into a pool of blood, and then running around drenched in it a la Carrie was a bit much. If there’s a cave with a huge pool of blood in it, I’ve yet to find it. Also, when we get down to the final four living people, two women stand and fight, and two run and hide, so you get the dichotomy of the stereotypical female and the stereotypical male horror film characters. No one may scream and faint, but the lead aggressive “male” woman sure does get knocked out a lot. How many concussions do you think she has? All in all, I’d say The Descent is an old-fashioned good monster movie, with a great build up, so-so follow through, and a confusing ending, but defiantly worth seeing. I read something on IMBD that interpreted the ending as completely differently that my interpretation. A quote from Marshall made it seem like the woman hadn’t gotten out of the cave yet, but my reading of it was more along the lines of “what the fuck?” What did you think of the ending?

I saw The Descent at this year’s Sundance festival – and I’m told the ending was altered for a U.S. release. The version I saw had the sole survivor escape from the caves, made it to the car, drove away, pulled over the side of the road a few miles down, and allowed herself to scream and cry. She turns her head slightly, to reveal the ghostly apparation of her best friend, the aformentioned Asian girl, ( who the lead girl allowed to be devoured by bat-people after a conversation with the other girl the Asian girl impaled in the neck accidentally who told her that the Asian girl stabbed her and left her for dead, confirming the subplot of tested loyalities in situations of mortal combat i discussed earlier) staring at her in the passenger seat. This image dovetails with the opening of the film, which occurred a year earlier, in Scotland, where the lead girl lost her daughter and husband in a horrific auto accident. She’s haunted by that image of her decapitated daugther throughout the course of the movie. The version of the film I saw ends with that image compounded by a factor of 2. The movie leaves you with the grim reality of the character that survives : her daughter and husband are still dead, as are all of her best friends, and she’s going to be haunted by them for the rest of her life. Not exactly a catharsis. After surviving her ordeal, her life is only going to get worse. Like it or not, however, I found it to be incredbily visceral and powerful choice. Much better than last year’s The Cave, which followed a group of scientists into a subeterraean realm populated with scary monsters. The Cave relies much on exposition and explanation of what the creatures are, while The Descent dispenses with that and treats the observations of the creatures through the a layman’s point of view, allowing the audience to relate more to the situation on a primal level, and increase the sense of unease because it leaves you with less of a sense of what these creatures are and what they’re capable of; which makes it all the more scarier. Neil Marshall’s definitely a director to keep your eye on. Check out his first film, Dog Soldiers, his British Commandos vs. Werewolves opus, and his new film due out sometime next year, which I believe is something post-apocalyptic. Or post werewolf-yptic. Or post-scary-bat-people-yptic. Something with "yptic" in it.