Creature-Feature Conversations: The Descent
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
The Descent (2001, directed by Neil Marshall)
With guest reviewers Christa Carmen and Gwendolyn Kiste
JONATHAN RAAB: I saw this movie back in my ancient college days, and recall several setpieces and moments quite vividly, despite never revisiting it. There’s a good reason I never sat down to watch it again, despite my love for all things Neil Marshall (except for the new Hellboy, which wasn’t his fault from what I can tell): I’m fairly claustrophobic. Upon this second viewing my suspicions were confirmed: this movie just isn’t for me, not because I find it too scary, but more because I find the thought of being trapped in a cave upsetting to the point beyond being entertaining. That said, this film absolutely commands my respect for its claustrophobic first half, which is truly terrifying. It’s a shame that the second half devolves into poorly lit, hard-to-follow action. The cave creatures and jump scares are nothing compared to that first half!
GWENDOLYN KISTE: I also remember seeing this way back when I was an undergrad. I absolutely loved it, and it’s been fun to revisit it. I definitely agree that the first half sets up a wonderful amount of tension, some of which doesn’t quite come together in the second half. I think my biggest problem is how quickly you lose many of the characters. There aren’t enough of the interesting characters to follow after the first couple attacks—the loss of Beth early on always bothered me, since her relationship with both Sarah and Juno was really interesting—so that does take away from the story a bit.
Even so, it’s still one of the creepier monster movies of the last twenty years, and I love the character of Sarah. She’s a great Final Girl with a terribly tragic backstory.
CHRISTA CARMEN: I saw this film in the theater with my younger sister while home from college on summer break. It must have been a fantastic beach day outside, because we were the only two people in the entire theater. This first-time viewing experience definitely colored my impression of the film: the empty theater mirrored the dark, underground cave system, amping up the tension and elevating my overall enjoyment of what I found—even when discounting external factors—to be a creepy and claustrophobic creature feature, to use words already employed by the two of you.
I also agree that one of the film's weaknesses is not playing further into the solid backstories it initially establishes for its all-female cast. Sure, Juno and Sarah's rivalry drives certain narrative events, but viewers could have benefited from seeing the consequences their relationship had on the others—Beth in particular, like Gwendolyn mentioned—as it crumbled to pieces like the rock walls around them.
I’ve never been able to fully commit to either Team Sarah or Team Juno. I want to get behind Sarah as the deserving Final Girl that she is, but I can’t help but feel a certain amount of regret when Juno gets her comeuppance.
GK: Yes! I was always sad at the end with Juno as well. It did feel like a fitting climax in a lot of ways, but at the same time, Juno’s character was such a fantastically complicated one. Again, though, if the story had dealt even more with the dynamic between Juno and Sarah (and Beth), it could have been even better.
I also love your comparison of a movie theater to the cave, Christa. That’s such a great visual!
CC: We sat in the very back row and were like, “Did we hit the horror movie theater-going experience jackpot or what?!?!”
JR: I agree with you about Juno. If I remember correctly, she was the first one to really fight back against the monsters. And the death of the other friend (Beth?) was frankly not her fault. I don’t know if we were supposed to feel a sense of triumph when Juno is wounded and left to die in the end, but I certainly didn’t. I felt that moment had more to do with the degeneration of Sarah in this wild environment than any sense of justice.
I do want to take a moment to talk about how beautiful the film is. While I think the cinematography loses its way the deeper they go into the cave, many of the interior sets (when we can see them, that is) look terrific, and there’s a real sense of progression and space as the group begins their descent. The forest scenery is also quite stunning and ominous, even if it looks nothing like the Appalachian Mountains in which the film is set. There’s a real sense of foreboding atmosphere as the group first enters the woods and stays at the cabin, complete with a spooky goblin-face on a bag to signal to the audience that there are terrors ahead.
GK: I remember thinking the first time I saw it about how beautiful the cinematography was. The film has got a striking look, and what’s particularly interesting is that I feel like that look fits more into the types of horror movies we’ve seen more recently (e.g. The VVitch or Midsommar). In that way, The Descent was a bit ahead of its time in that return to “beautiful horror,” which was very much a trend in the early days of the genre (almost any Universal or Technicolor Hammer film), but was often lost in the horror films of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, there are exceptions to that, but either way, I definitely think if The Descent came out now, it would still feel very fresh.
JR: Agreed, I wish more low-budget horror took the time to craft a good-looking image. While the spare CGI hasn’t aged well in this film, generally speaking, the movie looks professional. A lot of indie shot-on-digital films look too pristine and overlit, resulting in me being taken out of the movie. This looks like a movie.
I watched this on Prime, but so I’m not sure which version of the film it is—but I distinctly recall a different ending for my first watch. In this one, Sarah escapes the cave and drives off, only to pull over and be spooked by a ghostly Juno appearing next to her. It’s an awful jump-scare ending that carries no emotional resonance. The one I remember features Sarah escaping… only to wake back up in the cave, her flight merely a dream or hallucination.
CC: I agree that this film could still feel very fresh if it came out today thanks to the cinematography, and also that there are many impressive, arresting images that stay with you long after the credits roll. It's one of the reasons why I own this film, and return to it every few years. On one refresher viewing, however, I made the mistake of following The Descent with The Descent Part 2, and I've been struggling ever since to erase that travesty of filmmaking from my mind. Juno is... somehow still alive? And the whole sequel hinges on the American ending, which you touched on, Jonathan, in which Sarah actually does escape the cave system, as opposed to the original British ending that sees Sarah stuck in the boneyard with a single torch that becomes the flickering candles of her deceased daughter's birthday cake. I personally despise the fact that it was believed American audiences would balk at the dark, albeit narratively fitting ending to The Descent, and that we needed a "happier" one that showed Sarah surviving (even if her survival did come with a little post-friend-murdering PTSD). Alas, my copy includes the original ending, and that's the one I acknowledge as the true climax to this thrill ride of a creature feature.
Speaking of creatures, I’ve always loved the crawlers (which is how they’re referred to in all the media/press for the film, though I can’t remember if any of the spelunkers ever actually call them as such). They’re right up there with some of my favorite horror movie monsters, dated CGI be damned!
GK: I try to be diplomatic about movies, but honestly, the sequel was so truly terrible. It was overlong and added absolutely nothing to the story that the first one didn’t do infinitely better. So I love that you called it a travesty, Christa! Because it really was.
As for the finale in the first one, I do agree that the jump-scare in the American ending was not the film’s best moment, but even so, I’ve always thought it was so interesting that the movie has two distinctly different endings. In my mind, I always imagine they exist in a dual timeline where Sarah is sort of battling back and forth with what becomes of her. To me, it mirrors her depression after the loss of her family, how a person is often pulled this way and that with all the “what ifs?” Even her fate in the movie becomes like a giant “what if?” by the time it’s over. That’s left a lasting imprint on me as a viewer, and often when I think about this film, I check in with myself and say, “Do you think Sarah is in the cave right now, or that she escaped?” Depending on the day, I’ll have a different answer, so that’s always been a neat experience for me as a fan of the movie. How dynamic the story is, even fifteen years later.
CC: I love this take on the dual endings, Gwendolyn! It is interesting to think of Sarah caught in some vicious “what if” circle, and a pretty suitable fate for the cold dish of revenge she served Juno. I guess happy endings are hard to come by when trapped in an unexplored cave system with flesh-eating, echolocation-employing humanoid monsters hellbent on picking off you and your friends!
Christa Carmen’s short story collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Additional work can be found in outlets like Fireside Fiction, Year's Best Hardcore Horror, The Wicked Library, and Tales to Terrify. Christa lives in Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle, and is an MFA candidate at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, of the University of Southern Maine. You can find her online at www.christacarmen.com.
Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and the occult horror novelette, The Invention of Ghosts, from Nightscape Press. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Vastarien, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Unnerving, Interzone, and LampLight, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.