Celebrating Neil Marshall’s “The Descent”

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I don’t consider it a far off notion to call Neil Marshall this generation’s John Carpenter. The man has delivered his own twisted and original visions of various genres that have ended in some of the most riveting movie experiences I’ve ever had. I first discovered Marshall with “Dog Soldiers,” which successfully combines the werewolf sub-genre with a war movie, resulting in a quite obvious homage to “Assault on Precinct 13.” I’m also a humongous fan of his post apocalyptic tale “Doomsday,” which is his loving ode to the post apocalypse sub-genre and zeroing in on a heroine that’s basically Snake Plissken, even missing one eye, to boot.

Marshall at his best is a raw and relentlessly brilliant filmmaker who can muster up some unique emotions and arouse hot debates among the horror and science fiction community. Marshall’s masterpiece is his odd form of “The Thing,” in where he casts a predominantly female cast, all of whom are confined to one location, forced to fight off delirium, and mistrust, and becoming victim to their landscape, which is harrowing and dangerous no matter where one turns.

Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” is a trove of paranoia, hysteria, and all the worst fears combined in to a fight for survival. It’s a masterpiece of contemporary horror cinema that is relentless in its themes of grief, unresolved emotions, and coming to accept death as inevitability. Merely pegging it as a horror movie under estimates what “The Descent” really is all about, presenting so many themes beyond the aforementioned. There’s the idea of natural selection, the raw instincts of motherhood, and the way Marshall subverts the clichés and horror tropes to present a film teeming with female characters, all of whom never fall in to broad stereotypes.

“The Descent” could also count as something of a metaphorical trip in to the damaged mind of its character and heroine Sarah, who ventures in to the darkness of her grief with her friends and adversary Juno, only to confront her worst fears and figure out if she really wants to live. Sarah is constantly haunted by visions of her dead daughter that symbolize the ultimate proposition if Sarah wants to lie down and die and submit to her darkness, or is willing to see it through to the end. Marshall’s film is anything but a simple survival horror film, using a lot of the cave’s corridors and crevices to symbolize some form of turmoil within our characters. There’s even the particularly apt image of Sarah lurking in a pool of blood and skulls as if using the torment in her life to help her in her fight for survival. One instance even sees her battling one of the nocturnal creatures of the film that happens to be a mother itself.

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“The Descent” is centered on young Sarah, a woman stricken with grief and terrorized by memories of the horrific road accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter. Oblivious to the apparent affair he was having with Sarah’s best friend Juno, Sarah is still filled with some instinctual sense of distrust from Juno, who is overly eager to break Sarah out of her depression. Juno, as played by Natalie Mendoza, is absolutely gorgeous and attractive, but ultimately reveals herself to be an ugly and despicable individual as the narrative progresses.

She’s also incredibly arrogant, which leads to her secretly leading her friends to explore a cave that has been abandoned and desolate for many years. The group of female spelunkers are horrified when the cave they’re exploring crashes down around them, but are in disbelief when Juno reveals the cave their in is uncharted, has no real markings on their maps, and may possibly have no exit to the outside world.

Even worse, no one is aware they’re in the caves. What spirals in to an emotional series of hysteria and panic completely transforms in to pure horror when they learn the cave is inhabited by nocturnal flesh eating monsters. This instantly morphs in to a pure fight for survival, as the women must either fight, hoping to find a way out, or hide and hope for rescue. Marshall makes the caves the movie is set in as something of a hellish domain filled with so many tricks and surprises that the odds are stacked against our characters from the moment they enter the domain of these mysterious monsters. The performances that Marshall elicits from his cast are raw and utterly gut wrenching, as they submit themselves over to their emotions even before we view the monsters hiding in the darkness.

The characters act just like anyone in this situation would, from their screaming in vain for help, to frantically running around in the darkness, hoping to find a tunnel or hole leading in to daylight. The mere fact that some of them survive is only indicative of their need to survive as well as the adrenaline of fear that runs rampant throughout. Take for example Juno’s compelling battle with two of the creatures clawing at her to pull her in to the darkness of the cave. It’s a brilliant exploration of how primal women can be when pushed in to a corner, but also shows how fear can sometimes be our best and worst enemies. Juno seems to be the only person who has a handle on her emotions. She even advertises it as such. But that’s dropped on its head when she becomes one of the caves worst enemies, mistakenly murdering one of her friends during her state of fright, and then covering up the incident as a whole.

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Juno’s survival is centered totally on self preservation, as it becomes her credo from the minute we see her. Juno wants to help Sarah because Juno feels guilt about the affair. Juno feels responsible for the death of Sarah’s daughter but tries to project her regrets on to Sarah, and in a callous display of narcissism, even wears a necklace that Sarah’s husband gave to her in secret. Much like the monsters, Juno is a villain hiding in plain sight that the characters should have seen coming so many years ago. Much like the caverns they’re stuck in, Juno is beautiful outside, but heinous and horrific on the inside.

When Sarah hobbles Juno, she relinquishes all sense of duty toward her secret nemeses, and only reflects what Juno has sought from the moment the monsters were discovered. To Juno, it’s all about self preservation, and never once is about escaping as a unit, and Sarah shows her how ugly it can be.

Forget the idiotic edited ending of the US cut of “The Descent.” And, as I do, completely dismiss the sequel. The finale of “The Descent” is gut wrenching and heartbreaking, as Sarah’s own form of grief and haunting reminder of her daughter becomes a form of acceptance for her. Clearly there is no way out of this cave that she’s aware of, and she can continue manning its caverns and looking for an exit, but that may prove to be in vain, ultimately. Instead the haunting ghost of her daughter becomes something of a gateway in to serenity, as she greets death coming in at all corners with a smile and satisfaction. It’s not at all ambiguous, and yet not clunky or on the nose. It’s something of a symbolic end to a movie that could have taken the easy way out and taken its audience for fools.

“The Descent” is the director at his best. I hope he accomplishes another masterpiece while he’s still working in film, despite his further work being strong works of fiction in their own right. I have been very attracted to a lot of his work, from “Centurion,” and his work on “Game of Thrones.” Until then “The Descent” is one film I revisit time and time again and consider it one of the greatest horror films ever made.