By Anna Husted EBS Film Critic
Feminism is a strong theme running through Neil Marshall’s “The Descent.” This female-led British horror film deserves the praise it has received from critics over the past 10 years. While I love this film, there is a point of contention concerning how the women in “The Descent” treat one another. What do you do with a film that has no male actors and asks tough questions about what it means to be a woman in the world? You watch it again, of course.
“The Descent” follows Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) after a horrific car accident in which she loses her husband and daughter. Her adventure-seeking friends, Juno and Beth, look after her and propose a spelunking trip deep in the backwoods of North Carolina. The landscape is akin to that of “Deliverance,” setting the tone for an unknown horror that is about to befall the six friends.
After the friends make their initial descent into the first room of the cave, they stand in wonder at this unexplored region of the world. On their descent into the next room, the narrow passage behind them collapses, leaving them shaken, but confident they will find another way out.
As tensions run high, egos take over. Juno, who has taken the lead up until now, reveals she didn’t bring the guide book for this cave system because it doesn’t have a guide book … and for good reason.
Without spoiling the nature of the “monster” in the film, “The Descent” becomes more than a story about female friendship and betrayal. The women start to see images in the darkness—images that take on actual shapes that torment the friends.
Roger Ebert describes the film’s intense darkness as “oppressive … a terrifying emptiness, a vacuum to be filled by real or imagined dangers.” The darkness is so overwhelming at times that the only way to see the action is to watch it on the big screen, submersed in the total darkness of the theater.
The horror genre has always been empowering for women. Women are usually the last standing humans against the monster—aligning them with the monster, as women can also be perceived as ostracized from society. Even early horror films such as “Attack of the 50-foot Woman,” which was offensive to women when first released in 1958, is now viewed as a film that portrays women as a genre to be respected and feared for their strength and wisdom.
“The Descent” is no different because of its entire female cast—a rarity in Hollywood, where there are no qualms about all-male casts. The feminist struggle comes to the surface when the women are faced with the unknown and known darkness, and begin to turn on one another to survive.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema or hiking up a mountain. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s running, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.