Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Descent: But Wait, It Gets Worse

One theory of the enjoyment of scary movies has it that we enjoy them because they allow us to vicariously experience events that make our everyday hassles trivial. Call it a special case of downward comparison - we come out of a scary movie thinking "sure, I had a huge fight with my spouse and work sucks and my bad ankle is acting up again, but at least I haven't had my face peeled off and sewn back onto my head upside down." That, plus the little adrenaline rush we get from being proximal to dangerous experiences without being in danger ourselves. I dunno, maybe there's something to it, but I'm not sure it ends there. Anyway, the point is that we all have things we have to deal with in our lives, and one way we deal with them is to look at how much worse someone else has it, whether it's a scary movie, a reality TV show about some "Real Housewives" somewhere, or any number of medical oddities shows.

One of the things I like about The Descent is that it goes through a few different layers of worse, and it makes the title work both literally and metaphorically as a result.

The movie begins with a group of women white-water rafting. They appear to be having a total blast, and in lesser hands, this fun would SOON TURN DEADLY, getting stranded, crazy hillfolk, Deliverance with T&A and a Final Girl emerging triumphant. That would have sucked. Instead, the women paddle up to their cars, where friends and family are waiting. It's just a fun weekend out, and sure, any minute things could turn bad, but they don't. At least not in any of the obvious ways. There are a couple of uncomfortably meaningful looks between Juno, the group's nominal leader, and Paul, who is married to Sarah, one of the other women in the group. Something is amiss, and as Sarah, Paul, and their young daughter get in the car to go home, the tension is obvious, as is the implication: Paul's been cheating on Sarah. Sharp words are exchanged, the beginnings of one of those conversations you absolutely have to have but don't want to because your daughter is sitting in the back seat. So they start to argue and they rear-end a pipe truck and BAM its cargo slams into their car, narrow metal rods spearing Paul and the daughter.

BOOM. DEAD. It's like the movie is saying "Happy now, bitches?" Things are going to get worse, yes, but not when and where and how we should expect.

Flash forward to some time later. Sarah's been struggling. She has nightmares. She takes pills. She doesn't sleep well. But she's coming along on another outing with Juno, three other friends from the rafting trip, and a new thrill-seeking friend of Juno's who the others don't know all that well. They hole up in a cabin, drink, catch up, tiptoe carefully around the dead child and unfaithful husband in the room, and Juno fills them in on the adventure. They're going caving in the Appalachians, in a documented system. Something new and exciting. This is definitely a step up from rafting for the group, and Juno, alpha female, assures all of them that she's got maps of the system and she's filed a travel plan. It's going to be a great adventure, she says. They hike up to the entrance point and rope down into the system. And here's where it gets worse again, because now you have all of these people, still thinking about the terrible tragedy that befell Sarah - a tragedy for which Juno was at least partly responsible - and now they're in a cramped space, where light is scarce, safety is even more scarce, and everyone has to rely on everyone else, and then the cave-in occurs.

BOOM. TRAPPED. Things just got worse.

Now they have nowhere to go but down. That's true both of the way out, and of their circumstances, because now we have an emotionally and psychologically volatile situation pushed forward by the need to survive. Suffice it to say, the women push further and further on, losing gear and injuring themselves along the way, wondering why all of the caving gear they find is roughly 80 years old. Wondering what the paintings on the cave walls mean. By the time certain truths come to light, it's too late. It's not really Lord of the Flies, but it has the steady drumbeat towards atavism, shot in murky shadow, flickering torchlight, sickly green nightvision, stone and mud and blood. They go ever downward, further and further downward, civilization stripped away in the cold, unsparing way that nature has of making specific things more important than manners or polite lies or really anything but the animal need to be the one left standing.

This is a claustrophobic movie in a few different ways. What's unspoken between Sarah and Juno hovers over every interaction, every conversation. It's never not there. The caves are dark, sometimes mere cracks between rocks through which the women have to push themselves. Every setback takes something away from them, every misstep costs them time and the chance of their survival. Someone has made a very, very bad mistake (not to reveal more than I already have, but it keeps…getting…worse) and now there is nowhere to go but down. The further down they go, the further they descend, the darker it gets, literally and metaphorically. Sarah has the sort of problems we watch scary movies to escape, but they are swallowed whole by the earth and our darkest impulses.


  1. I still get chills every time I watch The Descent, which is mission accomplished for any horror film. The Mist has both a similar effect and story arc; I don't know if I've seen any non-underground horror since then that's been as well done as those two.

  2. I like your analysis of The Descent being more than the trip into the cave. The title as an extended metaphor is always a welcome thing for me to read. This movie definitely made me think about it on many different levels, despite seeming at first like just an effective scary popcorn movie. Do you think there's an ultimate lesson in the film, such as "infidelity is bad," "hubris is a bad idea," or "forgiveness is good?"

  3. just wanted to say kudos on "steady drumbeat towards atavism" - dunno, made me smile.

  4. The fact that this movie was bookended by two of my absolute favorite things-- sudden and unanticipated personal tragedy at the beginning and a devastatingly poignant downbeat ending-- propelled The Descent into my top 50 of all time. And that's even without the kickass, take-no-prisoners cast and claustrophobic nightmare setting. Man, this one just delivers on every level, and it's one I feel safe recommending even to people who aren't self-identified horror fans. I need to watch it again, posthaste.