The Descent (2005) Review – Female ‘Dog Soldiers’

This was the first time that I’d seen ‘The Descent’ and now after having seen the whole film, it’s not that I don’t like it, it just could have been so different to the point where the events didn’t have to happen at all.

The film is written and directed by English writer and director, Neil Marshall whose previous success when it came to horror films most notably was ‘Dog Soldiers’ in 2002 which is fitting because the two films are eerily similar in concept. ‘Dog Soldiers’ follows six male soldiers trapped in a house in the Scottish Highlands by Werewolves when ‘The Descent’ follows six women trapped in a series of caves with monsters. Basically, it’s ‘Dog Soldiers’ with women.

Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is out rafting down a river with her friends, Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza). On the shore, Sarah meets her husband, Paul (Oliver Milburn) and daughter, Jessica (Molly Kayll). Whilst driving back into town, Paul is distracted for a moment, crashes head on with a van which is carrying pipes on the roof. The crash naturally loosens the pipes which break through the windscreen, killing Paul and Jessica whilst Sarah survives.

I have a problem with this particular plot line because there’s no need for it. You’d be surprised how little the ‘dead family’ plot plays into what is actually happening. The point was that the girls are trapped in the this underground sequence of narrow passages and caverns with these monsters and the aspects of fear, isolation and claustrophobia caused hallucinations and Sarah sees her daughter but answer me this, what difference would it make if her daughter was just ‘at home’ rather than dead. It also would have given Sarah greater motivation to escape the caves. Why would she be that bothered about dying if she had nothing to go home to?

One year after her family are killed, Sarah and Beth travel to the Appalachian Mountains in the USA to join Juno and her three other friends and spelunking enthusiasts, Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Together, the girls arrive at the opening to the cave with the intention of having an all-girls adventure together. If they’d have staying in the cabin and had a slumber party and not bothered with the spelunking thing, then it would have been an entirely different film. What kind of film? Well, when I saw the half a dozen women drunk in their pyjamas and laughing, I couldn’t help but think, ‘this is how a lot of porn starts’.

The girls arrive in the cavern and I have to say that I will never understand the nature of spelunking or ‘cave crawling’ or whatever it’s called. It’s a frighteningly dangerous hobby, people die doing this. And it’s not even a case of dying because you’re bad at it. All it takes is a spontaneous cave collapse, as it shows in the film, and that’s it, you’re fucked.

Actually, the monsters don’t show up for a while. There’s a lot of build up and one thing that the film does right is atmosphere. It would have been incredibly impractical to film inside a real cave so the system of tunnels and caverns were built at Pinewood Studios in England. Don’t get me wrong, bad things happen, the most damning of which was when Holly falls down a hole and breaks her leg. That pretty much damned her character. A compound fracture is tricky business when the victim isn’t underground with a lot of crawling through tight, dusty and mucky spaces to go through before first aid can be given. What really doesn’t help is that Holly is lying in a pool of dirty water and then has her bone pushed back underneath the skin. All the time this was happening, I was thinking that if she doesn’t die from shock and actually managed to make it out, she’s losing her leg, there’s no doubt. Holly doesn’t make it out, actually she’s the first to die when the crawlers turn up.

In that situation, I can understand that it’s ‘fight or flight’ except there’s not many options when it comes to ‘flight’ so it’s pretty much ‘fight or die’. In that very specific circumstance, I can understand how it’s possible that someone with no known combat experience will fight for their lives. However, it’s a bit suspicious that Juno suddenly turns into a super-soldier/expert hunter who can take down crawlers with virtually no problem and she would be a great soldier but one tactic that’s not encouraged in the field is ‘friendly fire’. Sadly, Beth approaches Juno when she’s in ‘combat mode’ and is rewarded by getting speared through the throat with a pickaxe.

Amazingly, Beth doesn’t die straight away but rather startles Sarah when she’s looking for a means of escape. They have this long, drawn out speech where Beth basically says that Juno speared her through the throat and as proof, gives Sarah the pendant that Beth ripped from Juno’s neck. Beth then asks Sarah to kill her which seems a little bit counterproductive. If death is not going to be an immediate problem, then wouldn’t another pair of hands be better? Apparently not because Sarah smashes her head in with a big rock.

Meanwhile, Juno regroups with Sam and Rebecca and those two are quickly disposed of in a gruesome fashion. Juno then meets with Sarah and the cat is let out of the bag. Sarah tricks Juno into lying about what happened to Beth. Instead of admitting that she accidentally stabbed Beth and then left, she makes something up that absolves her but not really because Sarah reveals that she knows that Juno left Beth for dead and has the pendant to prove it. However, the existence of the pendant has another meaning. Turns out, Paul (Sarah’s dead husband) gave Juno that pendant during their steamy affair behind Sarah’s back. Therefore, Sarah’s actions are totally justified when she pickaxes Juno through the leg and leaves her to fight a room full of crawlers.

The ending is a little bit debatable because there are two endings and neither leave very much open for a sequel. I’ll judge it on the one that I saw.

Sarah escapes the cave and fortunately comes out within running distance of the trucks they both arrived in. She gets in a car and drives away, only stopping to be sick and once she sits back, Ghost Juno is sitting next to her where Sarah screams and then wakes up back in the cave. She’s then faced with a vision of her daughter sitting in front of her, the two separated by a birthday cake and the flickering candles is actually the flame of Sarah’s torch.

Apparently, this was the UK ending. I think the US ending stops short of Sarah waking up in the cave.

It’s all left a bit ambiguous as to whether Sarah did escape or suffers a breakdown and envisions herself back in the cave, I don’t know but the point is that it finished that particular storyline and the writers really had to stretch and bend the continuity to not only bring Sarah back in the sequel but also Juno despite her facing certain death but all we hear is her screaming, her death is not confirmed and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching TV and Movies; if you mean it, show it.

‘The Descent’ was a really cheap film to make with a budget of £3.5 Million and it made quite a bit back with $57.1 Million or £46.9 Million. Not really a hit but that’s a nice little return. The film was also met with favourable reviews and remains on a few ‘top ten’ lists to this day.

‘The Descent’ goes to great lengths to keep a sense of realism. Even though it was filmed in a studio, lighting was limited to what the characters were carrying on them which was mostly the torches on their helmets and occasionally, flares. The scariest part for me is watching the girls squeeze themselves through the very tiny spaces. That is my worst nightmare, not having room to move. I’m not claustrophobic, you just wouldn’t find me in a cave. I’d rather be in a cabin in the woods… surrounded by Werewolves.

Patient 187

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