Not-So-Drunken Commentary Track: The Descent

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Culture Snob and Bride of Culture Snob discuss the 2005 horror thriller The Descent. Use the controls to hear or download the commentary track, which you’re supposed to listen to while watching the movie.

The Descent

Do you see what I see? Shauna Macdonald and friends in 'The Descent'Neil Marshall’s The Descent approaches being a perfect terror movie. And because terror is unique to cinema among art forms — it doesn’t translate well to the page because the narrative has to slow down for the reader, and it doesn’t translate at all to any other medium — The Descent approaches being a perfect movie, period.

That’s less provocative than it sounds, and I’m not claiming that this gory wind-up toy supplants Citizen Kane. Rather, I mean that (a) The Descent can only exist in an effective form as a film, and (b) it is nearly perfectly executed.

So it is not high art.

To wit:

  • The Descent is really no more complicated than Alien in an underground cave, just as Alien is often described as a haunted-house movie set on a spaceship. Six women go spelunking, and bad shit happens.
  • You can certainly claim that it’s rote. Only two of the six lead characters are developed at all: In the rafting prologue, Sarah is established as the protagonist when her husband and daughter are impaled in an auto accident, and Juno is set up as duplicitous.
  • While the movie is narratively frugal, it’s not subtle. If there’s information you need to know, Marshall obliges, usually with a closeup.
  • And some people might find it unbearably derivative. An obvious homage to horror movies and iconic movie moments, its references are occasionally jokey (a nod to Psycho’s shower scene) but mostly reverent. (I don’t need to repeat the work of RogerEbert.com editor Jim Emerson, who has been a thorough and enthusiastic proponent of The Descent and provides visual examples of how this horror show quotes its forebears.)

These criticisms are minor, for the most part built in to the feature-film format. Novelistic depth is sacrificed for brevity and replaced by character shorthand, and an emphasis on important narrative information is a response to the often-overwhelming visual and aural stimulation a movie offers.

But even if you’re turned off by those things, Marshall’s movie remains a brutally effective exercise in terror. The structure is simple: escalating peril. Our six thrill-seeking chicks descend into a cave in the Appalachians. Beware collapsing tunnels! Watch out for spoilers! How will they escape? And was that some sort of mutated man?!

Yes, there are monsters — pale underground people that might remind you of Spider-Man crossed with Max Schreck in Nosferatu or with the Weekly World NewsBat Boy.

Marshall never gives the audience (or his characters) a clear understanding of the threat that the monsters pose — are there six of them, or 600? — and he continually gives hope. The creatures — “crawlers,” the credits call them — have a welcome physical presence that’s rare in an age when it’s cheaper to computer-animate monsters than to achieve desired effects with actors, and they feel real and dangerous. On the other hand, they’re fallible, easily felled with rudimentary weapons or even the hands.

Pretty standard horror-movie stuff, but pulled off with panache and skill. Marshall is particularly adept at plunging the audience down the hole with his characters. The sound design of impacts, the way he holds a shot of bone protruding through skin, the choke of dust, and the tactile quality of a lake of blood provoke a sympathetic reaction in the audience. You aren’t merely watching events unfold; you’re feeling them.

As merciless as the The Descent is, an accumulation of elegant touches reveals an agenda beyond fear and tribute.

The turning point in the movie — when it becomes apparent that it will transcend its premise — comes with an innocent, split-second mistake by Juno. In the panic of trying to save her own life, she wheels around toward impending danger and sticks her weapon through her friend’s throat. The sisterly bond, already damaged by Juno’s decision to explore an unmapped cave, here becomes even more tenuous. Juno is, of course, sickened by what she’s done, but she doesn’t have the opportunity to linger.

A constant sense of loss dogs Sarah, though. In the hospital following the death of her husband and child, she frantically runs down a hallway, trying to escape a darkness that’s trying to envelop her. In the cave, she hears her daughter’s voice and sees the girl walking toward her with a birthday cake, candles lit.

The payoff is devastating: a lovely closing shot that fuses Sarah’s physical and mental realities. And Shauna Macdonald’s unfussy performance as Sarah comprises grief, pathetic, panicked helplessness, steely resolve, vengeance, and finally peace and resignation. (If you saw the version of The Descent that was released in American theaters, you saw a lesser movie. The only thing missing from the American cut is the coda, but it brings the story back around and justifies the inclusion of little things — you know, the beginning, a recurring interest in a dead child. Without its original ending — which was released everywhere except the United States — the movie is still terrifying, but it concludes on a cheap, dumb, obvious note, and what meager character context there was is left hanging there, like so many disemboweled entrails.)

The Descent is, in many important ways, an exercise in abstraction and projection. There’s little background given for the character relationships, and the effect is of a three-quarters-completed drawing, with the audience providing the shading and fine detail. The movie doesn’t impose its richness on you, and can be watched and enjoyed merely for its terror.

But for the attentive, Marshall’s choices raise questions that lead to ideas and echoes. Late in the movie, when you’re bound to be a shivering mess, he throws something else into the mix. Sarah kills a miniature monster whose screech is much more shrill than the others’. And then we see a creature with breasts — a mother — and we’re asked, gently, to understand some primitive form of grief in the context of Sarah’s dead child. Marshall is almost prodding the audience to equate Sarah with this inhuman creature.

This bit also reminds the audience of the core conceit of The Descent; the monsters that have been attacking the six women up to this point have, we now understand, all been male. It’s a cross-species battle of the sexes!

That’s just one of many tantalizing possibilities in The Descent. As straightforward as it is narratively, it’s refreshingly open to thematic interpretation. Why did Marshall choose to plunk six women in that cave? What’s the difference between ripping off your favorite movies and adding depth and meaning through carefully chosen references? When Sarah leaves Juno for dead, does she feel any guilt? Should she? What is the social structure of the “crawlers,” and what does it say about the movie’s gender politics? Should Marshall’s emphasis of phallic imagery and piercing be read sexually? Why does Sarah decide to give up?

That we asked ourselves these questions with a straight face says a lot about The Descent.

Of course a common theory about this film is that the ‘crawlers’ are all figments of Sarah’s imagination and that it’s she who kills all her friends or leaves them for dead. She hallucinates the monsters, just as she hallucinates her visions of her dead child. It’s a great film, as good as Alien, the best horror film I’ve ever seen.

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