in The Descent
words by Emma Louise Platt
Blurring the line between hero and villain, monster and human. Emma Louise Platt examines the gendered duality of The Descent…
In his follow up to 2001’s Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall presented a tight and anxiety-ridden claustrophobic nightmare with The Descent (2005), the story of a group of friends who find themselves trapped underground with cave-dwelling creatures out for blood.
The two characters the audience comes to know in any significant detail are Juno (Natalie Martinez) and Sarah (Shauna McDonald).
In her analysis of The Descent, Lisa Lazard states that “Juno deviates from particular normative notions of femininity through the film and is often located in masculinised positionings”. Juno is presented as ‘Other’ in two different ways. Firstly, she straddles the line between feminine and masculine but not exactly existing in a gender-neutral space. Juno is not without gender; rather she simultaneously exhibits qualities of both sexes. Juno’s behaviour is particularly masculinised; she leads her friends into an unknown and ultimately dangerous situation without any thoughts to potential consequences. She is awkward when attempting to comfort Sarah (in fact she did not even attend the funerals for Sarah’s family), and unlike the rest of her friends she does not have a traditional gendered role in life or in the film – Beth is a teacher, Sam a doctor i.e. caregiver, Rebecca the worrier and Holly expresses a desire for lots of children.
From the start of the caving expedition, it seems that Juno is positioned to be the hero, her actions in the cave further highlighting her difference from the group. When the other women flee during the initial crawler attack, Juno stands tall and fights. But Juno is also a more traditional ‘Other‘ woman by way of her affair with Sarah’s husband. She is a potential home-wrecker, a cheat, a whore. Knowledge of this affair feminises Juno, but along with her mortally wounding of Beth, ultimately dooms her. While Juno continues to exist in this quasi gender-neutral confined space throughout the film, Sarah, on the other hand, moves from feminine to masculine.
From The Descent‘s outset, Sarah is afforded a higher level of femininity by the viewer, not only because she still identifies as a wife and mother despite the death of her family, but because she is framed as being vulnerable and weak. Compared to Juno who is visually presented as almost as Lara Croft type character with clothing that is not overtly revealing, but tight, who shows her toned arms, slender but strong frame, with just enough cleavage to make her sexy but non-threatening and visible makeup. Sarah is pale, drawn and plain. She is seen taking medication before the caving trip and requires careful handling and constant reassurance.
The cave does not change Juno because Juno already possesses the skills she needs to survive the horrors of the cave. However, Sarah’s fractured mind is the perfect breeding ground for the insanity she faces underground. If the first half of the film is about a literal descent into the caving system, then the second half is about Sarah’s descent into savagery and madness. James Marriott writes in Devil’s Advocates: The Descent “if we look at the film as an attempt to cure Sarah through a process of symbolic rebirth, this process fails”, but Sarah is reborn, just not in the way originally imagined. She is not fixed or cured, not magically stripped of her personal trauma or makes peace with her grief.
After Sarah’s mercy killing of Beth she is immediately attacked by a crawler and in her attempt to flee, falls into a bloody lake. It is in this lake, acting as the cave’s monstrous womb that Sarah is reborn. She emerges slowly, bloody and silent, headfirst. She is almost unrecognisable, outer bulky layers of clothing have been shed, hair partially covering her face and wild-eyed, feral.
Of this moment, Linnie Blake theorises that, “Sarah has become the monstrous mother of the patriarchal imagination, at one with the monster and embodying the blood-smeared oneness with them”. Sarah is the monstrous mother by way of her grief over her daughter, but also the monstrous offspring of the cave. She was created by the trauma in the cave. Sarah not only becomes monstrous in her ferality, but she actively embraces it, even killing a crawler child. The caving system acts like a womb, nurturing and feeding into Sarah’s insanity, allowing her to eventually be reborn as a violent and vengeful monstrous mother.
Sarah embraces her monstrosity, not only out of necessity for survival, but because for her, monstrosity is preferable to her lonely existence. But already, just as in slasher films, an element of punishment is obvious. It is not merely limited to sex. Juno is punished by the savage Sarah, it is a personal punishment, and it is revenge. Revenge for sleeping with Sarah’s husband and revenge for leaving Beth to die. But Sarah is also the instrument for Juno’s punishment for existing in the boundary between genders, for living in both worlds. This cannot be allowed and for her transgressions, Sarah wounds her and leaves her to die. Sarah herself does not escape at all.
For her monstrous transformation and her monstrous acts, she stays trapped in the cave, grinning at a vision of her dead daughter. Sarah’s embracing of her monstrosity is ultimately fruitless, while she survives to the end of the film; it is not much of a survival. She is trapped in an underground labyrinth, driven mad and surrounded by her dead friends, now more alone than ever.