An all female cast of adventurers take on the traditionally male role of explorer, with terrifying consequences. Jess McCabe weighs up the pros and cons of this unusual horror film.
Six hardened adventurers and thrill seekers go caving. Except this is no ordinary cave - it is virgin ground, unnamed and unexplored. Or at least, no-one has ever survived to name it, or chart its passageways, populated as they are by a race of humanoid monsters perfectly adapted to the claustrophobic caverns.
The set up for The Descent is not unlike many horror movies - all the pieces of the formula are there - dark, scary setting, monsters, a group of foolhardy explorers venturing into the lion's den. What is different is that all of these adventurers are women.
It's a sad state of affairs perhaps, but this inevitably makes the film about gender to some extent. And in many ways, it breaks new, welcome ground. There is no experienced male character to heroically lead the way to safety and fend of the monsters (in fact the only male actor is shockingly and messily dispatched very early on). These women don't need one. And they are real, rounded characters not cardboard cut outs - perhaps because of the fact they are women, they are not slotted into the traditional boxes of hero, heroine, coward, comedian and token minority that usually populate these sorts of films. But, I feel that this promising beginning is chipped away at until what is presented is far more ambivalent.
they are real, rounded characters not cardboard cut outs
These women are tough, experienced in everything from base jumping to white water rafting. It's clear that they seek to push things to the limit. Girl's own adventure stuff. Except this is not that type of film. Instead of an action movie/romp, this is a hard, gritty subversion of the Indian Jones school (one of the group on seeing the cave entrance quips 'I'm not Tombraider'). And the use of an all-woman cast is, I would argue, an intrinsic part of that.
I was interested to find out this film was directed by Neil Marshall, whose previous effort, Dog Soldiers, was a low budget werewolf flick. In that film, an all-male group of soldiers is led to its destruction by a woman who tempts them into the lair of her werewolf family. And it includes a really terrible time of the month joke, setting it miles apart from the much more interesting Ginger Snaps.
Crassly, one of the chapter titles on the DVD edition of Dog Soldiers is 'All Women are Bitches'.
they enter into the male territory of the explorer
So perhaps it is not surprising that the women in The Descent get in trouble because they go a step too far - they enter into the male territory of the explorer, and, despite a valiant effort, it beats them.
This is a very claustrophobic film. Trapped in tiny spaces, in the looming dark, even without phosphorous-white, dripping creatures behind every corner, it is utterly terrifying.
But after the first scare, the women quickly find they are a match for these creatures. They can bludgeon them to death, and if they can do this often enough to find the way out they'll be ok.
This isn't Buffy though. The sympathetic characters are quickly killed off, leaving two. Sarah, a mother bled of her humanity by the death of her husband and child, and Juno - who is uncomfortably wedged into the role of villain, having got everyone trapped in the first place, slept with Sarah's husband and left one of the group to die. It is no co-incidence that she is the most determined and hard-core daring-do character of them all.
the sympathetic characters are quickly killed off
Horror films usually succeed by establishing a them-versus-us mentality - the humans band together (with the potential for one or two bad eggs), and are allowed to kill, maim and slaughter the monsters without compunction because they really are just that - inhuman, outside of the moral sphere.
But in The Descent, bludgeoning the monsters makes the characters just as monstrous. Hence the killing is fairly full on - caving in their soft white sculls, or pushing thumbs through their blind, sticky eye sockets.
The Descent complicates the traditional horror movie set up by showing the killing in grim, viscous detail. And even more so, through the traumatic effect it has on the characters. And the capacity for horrendous mistakes when people/women let themselves loose in bloody mayhem - in one scene, having just killed a monster, Juno hears a noise behind her. Thinking it's another monster, she swings her pick axe around without looking, to find she's buried it in her friend's neck.
The true brutality in the film is what the women are capable of
That's bad enough but it's the woman's failing voice pleading not to be left alone that creates the real horror in the scene rather than the seeping neck wound.
The true brutality in the film is not the by-the-numbers scary thing in the shadows, it's the horror that these women are capable of, and the effects of this trauma on them.
And the end of the film bears this out. The sole surviving character seems to have made it out. Shaking, coated in blood, she scrambles into a waiting car and drives away. She pulls off the road and vomits. There's no sense of relief here - but an uncomfortable realization that it would not be possible to come out of such an experience with any piece of mind. Except it's all a hallucination. She's really back in the cave, stuck without any hope of escape. But there's the true relief - she's been put through so much, there's no such thing as salvation for her. Instead her mind simply snaps and she sits with her imaginary dead daughter waiting for the light to go out - in reality a signifier for her death but in her mind the blowing out of birthday candles and the final wish of her daughter.
the women are stripped of heroism
Unlike the climax to The Thing, and other films which do not let any of their characters escape - there's no heroism to this. She's not saving anyone, quite the reverse. She dies having taken her revenge on her disloyal friend, hacking her in the leg so she won't be able to flee from the monsters - a type of revenge that would be called 'below the belt' if these characters were men.
And that's the key to why this film is such an ambiguous portrayal of gender - it has been stripped of heroism, and I can't help but wonder if the all-female cast was being used by the filmmaker to enact this.
The main character Sarah is put in a typical difficult hero position - forced to leave her friend behind, with the real possibility the monsters will eat her alive. There's no soft focus hand holding as she slips away - Sarah must cave her head in with the skull of one of the monsters' former victims.
Because although these are strong women, there are no heroics here - not to say the women do not put on significant displays of courage, bravery and perseverance. Instead, most the characters' strength invokes some of history's more misogynistic portrayals of women - they get a Medea-ish, semi-crazy look in their eyes when they kill.
they get a Medea-ish, semi-crazy look in their eyes when they kill
The cave itself can also be read as indicative of a fear of strong women - enclosed, damp, and semi-virginal, at one point Sarah plunges into a pool of blood.
So while these women are no wilting damsels, waiting to be rescued, neither are they allowed to fill the shoes of men in similar films. What is the message here, really? That women can be strong and tough and defend themselves. But also that they don't pull through. That an adventurous lifestyle leads them to a sticky end. That maybe they should just stay home. And that Indiana Jones-style, swashbuckling heroics are not for them.