The Descent has some of basal elements that make up the so-called branch of horror, often termed survival horror. But unlike it's precursor cinematic cousins, it dives deep into its cavernous abyss and remains there, never hinting that hope and nobility will ever win out. This is not a fun flick, or a feel good movie of the summer. And in the face of all the flicks featuring women kicking ass, being all-too competent and cool, and triumphing over struggle (often at the expense of men . . . again), it delves into hysteria and the macabre.
And like many movies of its ilk, it begins with friends having a good time, laughing amongst each other and taking on one of many adventures, and quickly after which, the main character, a Scottish young woman named Sara (Shauna Macdonald) loses both her husband and young daughter in an abrupt and brutal accident that will leave her haunted and traumatized.
Fast forward a year later, where the friends gather again in order to present her with some sort of therapy, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) style, for a spelunking expedition somewhere amongst the Appalachian caverns (echoing hints of Deliverance and The Howling). Her closest friend from England, Beth (Alex Reid), is not too keen on the idea for herself or for Sara, especially considering Sara is still raw from her ordeal, but she goes along anyway because despite Juno's alpha female goading and prodding, Sara seems to be okay with it at first. And since they are professionally equipped and fairly athletic, all pretty much everything appears to be well, even though we are treated to a brief nightmare to suggest a bad omen, and Sara imbibing psychotropic drugs to remain psychologically balanced.
Gradually, over time, things start to unravel. Sara gets a bind that displays her claustrophobia wasn't merely in her head. The ever hyperactive Holly (Nora Jane Noone) breaks her leg in a zeal to find a quick exit. Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) confronts Juno's overt deception when they find out that they are not in a tourist trap, but an (allegedly) unexplored cave that yields no sign of daylight the further they press on. Accusations fly, and the young gals are often at each others throats, in anxiety, what to do next. They had been strong, independent, fun loving young women at the onset outside of damaged Sara and the weight of her tragedy. Now they are encompassed by a sense of impending doom. And worse, Sara seems to be hallucinating---at first, until the others discover to their horror---in the dank caverns they have entered a lair at their own peril---they are being stalked. And their adversaries aren't human.
What are we to make of The Descent and its characters? What is it trying to say? It's clear that the alpha female of the pack is their Captain Ahab---Juno willingly or not, sets up betrayal after betrayal, including a hint that she had an affair with Sara's late husband (Oliver Milburn). She leads them into serious danger and even death when entering a cave unlisted and unnamed for the sake of high adventure and risk taking, and even involves one of them in an unsettling accident, the only truly nurturing friend that is Sara's rock. It's that event which sets the pivotal tone for Sara's psychological crack up. In a way, The Descent unveils its dark motivations for the women just as it pits them against a primal and fierce backdrop; the women are, in the beginning, rather giddy and shallow, only to expose their other (true?) selves when adversity strikes: adulterous, backstabbing, jealous, vengeful, fearful, and panicky.
And once Rebecca's sister Sam (MyAnna Buring) discovers the nature of their predatory terror, and the rest try to take a stand with Juno in a damaged need for redemption, it is perhaps way too late---Sara becomes horror incarnate (recalling Carrie and perhaps Predator in the visuals). Call me reaching and playing the role of a pseudo-Jungian philosopher, The Descent is just as a metaphor for abysmal feminine lunacy, a trek downwards into the psyche in which Woman cannot truly escape her suffering from Pagan Earth without the archetype of The Male Principle, whether it is savior, warrior, hero, or magician. It is devolution, a one way trip into the underworld.
It has been suggested that Sara may have died in the vehicle with her family and she is in an astral Hell, or that she was engulfed by her own insanity and what we see is that made manifest. Director Neil Marshall only implies these theories, never answering the dark enigma but leaving us with our own thoughts of its onscreen violence and treachery, and while I am not certain it's what he truly intended, the largely all-female presence leaves us to speculate that a post-feminist matriarchy, as a closed circle, Western women, American, British, or what have you, would be left to their own devices . . . engaging in in-fighting in a decaying coven that would implode upon itself in the face of feral nature and predation.