Neil Marshall’s horror film The Descent stands as something of an anomaly for aficionados of both feminist and horror cinema. In a genre often populated with overtly sexual female protagonists who are, as The Cabin in the Woods ironically points out, either killed off first (but not before we are privy to a little tits and ass) or maternal figures—think The Ring, Mama, The Exorcist, and most recently The Babadook—the women we see in horror films are often polarized opposites. They are either the virgin mother or the whore.
Yet, Marshall’s cult classic rejects these pop culture stereotypes and imbues his heroines with biceps, bravery, and a finely tuned bullshit detector.
The film follows six long-time friends as they reunite a year after the death of the protagonist’s daughter and husband in a freak car accident. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who is still healing and trying to establish her sense of self now that her role as wife and mother is nonexistent, gathers with friends in the remote Western Appalachians to go on a caving trip that promises renewal, recovery, and, above all else, estrogen-fueled adventure.
The film opens on a churning whitewater river and the screams of a high-pitched voice. Poised to believe, as we have so many times before, that this female cry is one of terror, the scream dissolves into a peal of laughter as the kayakers deftly navigate the current. The sound, used to both reaffirm and then immediately invert our sense of social gender norms, provides a playful start to an ultimately blood-soaked film where women get to be petrified, yes, but also, occasionally, pissed-off.
Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah’s best friend and aptly named after Jupiter’s wife (a wrathful, conniving goddess from Greek and Roman mythology), leads the group into their descent, both figuratively and metaphorically. Forgoing the necessary map to lead them out of the cave, Juno adroitly guides them deeper into uncharted territory, a reversal of the story of Orpheus, who hoped to lead the ghost of his dead wife out of Tartarus; however, arrogance and impatience results in both the erasure of Orpheus’ wife when he turns around prematurely – as it does when Juno holds up the battered guidebook, momentarily, before firmly locking it in the backseat of her car, thereby promising the erasure of her group.
Almost immediately a moment of claustrophobia-induced panic leads to the broken bone of a novice climber. Hysteria, commonly associated with women, festers among the group. Yet, unlike many horror films where the female victims are passive, weak, or relying on the ingenuity of their male counterparts, there are no men for these women to turn to; they can only turn toward themselves. And while they are scared (rightly so), they get to show-off their physical strength on screen as they desperately attempt to escape the oppressive darkness (and demons) that dominates the womblike atmosphere enveloping them.
Juno’s run in the woods prior to their departure for the cave is reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s run through the woods at the beginning of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs with the camera representing a predatory presence in its tracking shot behind her; the very nature of the shot is suggestive of what is to come later, when Juno and the rest of her crew are literally hunted. Simultaneously, it is another moment to demonstrate her athleticism and physical prowess. Afterward, her stretching as she raises her ankle above her shoulder signals an embellishment, a musical flourish to the harmony of her movement.
It is important, even now in 2016, to demystify our perceptions of women in the horror genre. Marshall’s asserting of Juno’s physicality early in the film is a strategy few directors employ for women in the horror or sci-fi genre. Ripley in Alien (1979) and Vasquez in Aliens (1986) appear unaltered by preconceived notions of female sexuality, impressing audiences instead by their commanding presence in a room full of men or their ability to do pull-ups ad nauseum while their male cohorts cheer them on. We’re used to women crumbling under the psychological or physical pressures imposed on them in horror films or, perhaps even more disturbingly, embracing the trauma forced upon them, like Rosemary’s tender moment with her satanic son in the final minutes of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
In some ways, Sarah metaphorically succumbs to Rosemary’s plight as The Descent‘s original (and superior) ending closes, with Sarah’s hallucination that she is sitting with her dead daughter on her birthday while the screams of the underground creatures swell in an unsettling crescendo. Sarah is no longer mentally stable, and the violence and trauma she has undergone is internalized and re-realized in an imaginary fantasy as a way for her to cope with her own mental and physical pain in the aftermath of her family and friends’ deaths. Drenched in blood as she smiles across the birthday cake candlelight, she is as calm as a martyr, a chilling contrast to the brilliant color red: a color of passion, anger, shame, or a blush.
While Marshall’s women do panic and make foolish choices as they disperse after the first attack by the flesh-eating Troglofauna, screaming out for one another, their frenzy is trapped and overcome. Only as these women perform a daring (and cringe-worthy) feat of scaling the cave’s ceiling, using merely their carabiners and their hands as a source of support, does one realizes how rare this kind of physical prowess by women still is in today’s films. While Charlize Theron was lauded in the blockbuster hit Mad Max: Fury Road and Quentin Tarantino continues to empower his leading ladies, like Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill series or stunt woman Zoe Bell’s balletic precision and strength in Death Proof (2007), the sheer range of reaction and response to physically violent challenges is rare to see in more than one woman during a single movie.
The Descent passes the Bechdel-test, and after the first 10 minutes of the film, we never see a male character again because we don’t need to. Female audiences don’t require Tom Hardy swooping in as our hero. Instead, we want to see reflections, variations, and gradations of ourselves. While it’s somewhat surprising that, 10 years later, Marshall’s film still feels startlingly fresh due to its all female cast, one can only hope that directors and producers increasingly capitalize on women to watch out for—in all their shapes, sizes, and kick-ass glory.
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