The Descent is a special film in many ways. Not only is it a terrific, character-driven, slow-burn creature feature, but it also celebrates my Save the Cat!® anniversary of the MITH of the Month. Last year at this time, my debut beat sheet was John Carpenter’s The Thing. A friend of mine joked that I was featuring an all-male cast movie. So I told him, next year, I’ll balance it out with an all-female cast and cover The Descent.
The Neil Marshall film, at least in my mind, is an ideal sister film to Carpenter’s 1982 film as it deals with a group of people who are out of their element in a hazardous, natural surrounding (the arctic wastes in The Thing; two miles underground in The Descent) and then introduces a bizarre and dangerous unworldly element into it.
Not only are the groups challenged by the incomprehensible antagonists, but by each other as alliances are formed and friendships are broken. It’s all great stuff—claustrophobic and primal. Blake Snyder said in his Save the Cat! books that primal is key for the story to be relatable to us as human beings—write a story a caveman can understand. The Descent seems to take this primal challenge literally. (Appropriately, the film was released the same year as the first Save the Cat! book in 2005.)
The Descent was written and directed by UK filmmaker Marshall, who had previously made Dog Soldiers about a band of soldiers fighting off another pure monster—werewolves. Marshall went on to direct Doomsday, Centurion, Tales of Halloween, episodes of Game of Thrones, Westworld, Black Sails, Lost in Space, and the forthcoming Hellboy feature.
The Descent was released on July 8, 2005 in the UK, and a year later on August 4, 2006 in the US. Unfortunately, the US version differs slightly from the international version, trimming off the last few minutes. The film I’m covering is the superior original version intended by the filmmaker (and with the better ending). I recommend viewing The Descent on Blu-ray or DVD to see the original version of the film. It’s currently also available on the Netflix of horror, Shudder, but it’s the US version.
An American cave horror film came out when The Descent did, appropriately called The Cave. For a class in film writing and effective filmmaking, watch The Descent, an effective film made for a fraction of the cost of the American film, and then The Cave and compare. The Descent proves a good film is all about story and characters over special effects. And going primal. In 2009, an unnecessary and ineffective sequel, The Descent Part 2, was made. Now, let’s go caving, Save the Catters!
Written and Directed by: Neil Marshall
MITH Type: Pure Monster
MITH Cousins: Alien, Jaws, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, Tremors, Jurassic Park, Anaconda, Dog Soldiers, The Shallows, Lake Placid, Cloverfield, Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Mist, An American Werewolf in London, Rogue, The Descent Part 2, Eden Log, It Waits, Sanctum, The Ruins, The Cavern, The Cave
Opening Image: The film opens on some white water rapids—we’re in for an adventure. Navigating the boiling, frothy water in a rubber raft are Beth O’Brien (Alex Reid), Juno Kaplan (Natalie Mendoza), and Sarah Carter (Shauna Mcdonald), the hero of this soon-to be dark, cavernous tale. These women live for the thrill of danger and adventure, especially Juno. It’s all about carpe diem (seize the day).
Set-Up: On the shore wait Sarah’s husband, Paul Carter (Oliver Milburn) and her young daughter, Jessica (Molly Kayll). As the river calms and the three in the raft drift toward shore, Beth playfully knocks Juno into the water with her oar (setting up an unusual payoff near the end of Act Two).
Beth and Sarah pull the boat ashore and climb out. Paul helps Juno out of the water. There seems to be a moment of tenderness between them.
Sarah and her family head back to their hotel. In the car, Sarah talks to Jessica about her birthday party plans. Paul seems cold and distant. As Sarah asks her husband about this, he’s momentarily distracted and veers into oncoming traffic. In the other lane, a van carrying copper pipes on its roof rack smashes head-on into their car. The pipes, like spears, fly off the van and thrust through the windshield. Paul and Jessica are killed instantly.
In the haziness of Sarah’s consciousness, Jessica blows out the candles of her birthday cake that will never arrive.
Sarah awakens in the hospital, bruised and bloodied, IVs stuck into her. She rises, rips them away, and dashes into the hallway. Everything is cast in a ghastly green pallor. Sarah calls for “Jessie.” The lights in the hallway begin to wink out one by one. Sarah runs in a panic, the darkness catching up to her (a foreshadowing). She runs into Beth, who catches her. The green pallor is gone.
Apparently, this is actually happening rather than in Sarah’s fragmented mind. Beth comforts Sarah and tells her that her daughter is gone. Sarah, naturally, is devastated, wailing and crying in the hall. Juno joins them, unable to hold back her emotions.
The title, THE DESCENT, flashes on the screen, white on black, suggesting not only a literal descent of traipsing into some caverns, but a psychological and emotional descent as well.
Catalyst: In a sweeping panoramic, the title says APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, USA. And then, ONE YEAR LATER. From an eagle-eye POV, we snake along a winding mountain road with the beautiful yet melancholy strains of David Julyan’s orchestral score to find a SUV creeping along like a silver beetle.
Debate: Inside, Beth drives, unable to find a radio station that isn’t country or gospel music. (They’re in the South after all.) Sarah gazes out the window, oblivious. All that’s left of her is an empty shell. In true Debate form, she’s unsure she’s able to make this journey as she’s barely able to cope.
A bullet-riddled sign reveals the location as Chattooga National Park.
Beth tells Sarah that they “don’t have to do this,” meaning the annual trip. However, they know that Juno, who’s a bit of a powerhouse and who planned the event, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
They arrive at a rustic cabin and Juno meets them. Soon, Sarah is among friends—there’s Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring), who are sisters, and punk-haired Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), who like Juno, is a sporty adrenaline junky. We get to know these women and like them; they’re funny and warm.
We know who everyone is in the first 11 minutes.
Theme Stated: As they’re catching up on old times, Sarah blurts out, “Love each day,” which causes a hush. She then says that it’s something that Paul used to say. This casts a pall on the otherwise joyful moment. Those three words, LOVE EACH DAY, will payoff later, and it’s also the theme. Juno is a carpe diem kind of gal. Sarah, though she knows the words, will have to learn it through the adventure she’s about to embark on.
Debate (cont’d): That night, Sarah awakens. There’s an orange prescription bottle on her night stand. She’s taking something for anxiety or depression or both. As she gravitates to the window, hearing an unusual sound outside, a copper pipe slices through the pane, impaling her in the head. Sarah awakens again—a terrible dream. She might need to take stronger medicine to get through this.
Juno, the team leader of the group and the most fit one of the bunch, rousts everyone and they head off for the mist-shrouded wilderness beyond. She’s leading this expedition, the Captain Ahab, who’s going to bring her intrepid crew into danger based on her obsessive behavior of “the next thrill.” Their drive is long through winding roads, suggesting they’re embarking on a “road less traveled.”
Along the way, they discover the decaying corpse of a bull elk that looked like it died violently at the fangs of some animal. Its rotting flesh is teeming with maggots, a foreshadowing for the fatalistic turn their underground journey will take.
Break into Two: At 21 minutes, they reach their destination: a vast sinkhole in the ground that seems to go on forever—the descent indeed, ominous, even impossible. And as Beth says in surveying the seemingly unachievable plunge, “I’m an English teacher not a fucking Tomb Raider.”
Fun and Games: They each make their descent carefully, all expert cavers, except for Holly, who’s the reckless one of the group. It’s her thrill-seeking carelessness, which rivals even her mentor, Juno, that will be her undoing. After a brief encounter with bats, the group begin their climb through the cave system, literally in the upside-down world of Act Two. “There’s only one way through this chamber,” Juno says with finality, “and that’s down the pipe.” Sarah has made her choice to continue with the group; there’s no turning back now.
As they’re crawling through the “pipeline” they enter a vast cavern and light a torch. The red light reflecting off the stone walls suggests an almost womblike chamber, which, symbolically speaking, ties into the mother/daughter motif. A bit of a reach, you might say, but I’m going with it.
Sarah ventures off on her own, hearing what sounds like a child’s laugh. Impossible as they’re at least a mile underground now, right? Still, her senses, as we know, can’t be trusted. Venturing into the chambers beyond, leaving the rest of the group, she finds nothing. (We’ll learn later that Sarah’s senses are actually heightened and there is cause for her alarm.)
B Story: Juno shows up, frightening Sarah, announcing it’s a meal break. Juno is not only the team leader of the group, but a kind of mentor to Sarah who’s been with her from the beginning. However, Juno is more of a flawed narrator, as her recklessness and disregard for people’s safety (ironically while trying to be safe) will doom them all—her carpe diem attitude will have severe consequences. It’s Juno’s actions and her bond with Sarah that will help Sarah learn something about herself when things go bad, and help her transform. Juno also shows her most vulnerable side in this moment and apologizes to Sarah, teary-eyed, that she didn’t stay around longer after the accident. Juno’s way of dealing things, it seems, is to run away. Sarah says she understands.
Fun and Games (cont’d): When Sarah leaves the group to do more exploring, Holly asks Juno what Sarah’s deal is, “she looks like she saw a ghost or something.” Juno, like any mentor, comes to the defense of Sarah, and tells Holly “she’s fine.”
After Sarah finds the next passage for the group, Holly takes point (of course) and makes her way through a narrow pipeline filled with water in places that makes anyone with claustrophobia cringe. There is barely any wiggle room.
Sarah is the last one to try to come through but is stuck. Beth goes back to get her. Sarah’s not sure she can make the journey—and this is tough. She’ll die in there. Beth returns to help. The cave begins to crumble. Sarah has left some of their equipment (some rope bags) behind. They leave them behind as the passage collapses, getting Sarah out in the nick of time.
Now there’s a problem—there’s no going back and they’ve lost some of their much-needed equipment. Talk about the Point of No Return. There’s only ONE way to go through now—FORWARD. This moment with Beth, about the trust of friendship, will also payoff later. Like Juno, Beth was with Sarah during the day of the accident. Beth stayed behind and has offered the most emotional support to Sarah. The trust of the three friends—Sarah, Juno, and Beth—will all come under question later.
This is a story, much like John Boorman’s Deliverance (from the James Dickey novel), where the very bonds of friendship are strained and tested. The friendship of Juno, Beth, and Sarah will be tested on a primal level.
In all the dust and confusion, the image of a lit birthday cake that reads HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESSICA keeps blurring into frame. The birthday Jessica never had. And perhaps a thought or memory that haunts Sarah.
Realizing they’re trapped, Rebecca says that according to the guide book there are three ways in and out of the cave system. They still have two options of escape from the underground. However, Juno says that she didn’t bring the guide book, that that kind of information is for tourists. She wanted to explore this new, unexplored system so they could discover it for themselves and perhaps even name it.
The proverb states that pride goes before the fall, or in this case, the descent, and that’s what happens. It’s Juno’s arrogance and pride, her transgression, that will literally bring the monsters crashing down all of their heads in this house. “If there’s no risks,” Juno maintains, “then what’s the point?” There’s no hope of rescue—no one knows they’re down there (Rebecca filed a “flight plan” for a different cave). This raises the primal stakes. The only way out is under their own steam.
It’s during this argument and descent into the maelstrom that Sarah is looking for a way out. Shining her light among the shadowy stalactites, there’s what looks to be the image of a person, or at least a humanoid-like figure which is there one moment and gone the next. Did Sarah see it or is it just one of her drug-fueled hallucinations?
They approach a deep and vast chasm that seems to have an endless bottom. Rebecca, in a tense sequence, climbs across, building a rig with pitons (metal spikes used for climbing) and ropes, where the rest of the group can pull themselves like cave spiders on a strand of webbing. As Rebecca makes her way across, she finds a piton perhaps even a century old. Maybe they’re not the first ones who’ve found this place? But if it was discovered, why isn’t it known on any maps? Maybe the cavers before them never made it out? A chilling prospect considering their plight.
Midpoint: At 47 minutes, the group of lost cavers experience a false victory. They find some cave drawings not unlike the 20,000-year-old illustrations in France’s Lascaux caverns. It seems there were other occupants, thousands of years ago. Juno, impulsive, says they’re wasting their time looking at it—they don’t have much battery power or flares. Beth, however, the smarter and more calculated of Sarah’s friends, sees something more: a drawing of the mountain and two entrances. If they use this prehistoric map as a guide, they’re home free. This lightens their spirits.
Bad Guys Close In: As with any victory of the hero, the forces of darkness always arrive to take away their gain. And right on time, we see some kind of horrible cave dweller, looking like a cross between Gollum and a gargoyle, salivating, perhaps anticipating its next meal.
Using a Zippo lighter, Juno finds the passage with the fresh air supply, the breeze making the flame dance. The impulsive Holly quickly climbs into the cave, sees “daylight,” and then falls into a pit, shattering her leg. This echoes her thrill-seeking carelessness when she descended into the cave on a fast line. Now she’s down for the count and the stakes have raised further as her tibia is poking out of her mangled leg—she will die if they don’t reach safety soon, and her injury will slow them down. This starts the ticking clock and raises the stakes even higher.
Sam, the medical student, devises a splint using one of the ice axes that the climbers carry. The group starts breaking down. Sarah, the loner, goes off again, being taunted by the improbable sound of a “laughing child.” She finds an old metal spelunking helmet—not a good sign. What happened to its owner?
Then Sarah discovers something shocking—a pale figure slurping water from the floor of the cave. Startled by her, it springs off into the shadows. Juno, her overseer, finds her and tells Sarah that there’s nothing out there. Do we only see what we want so see or are there more living things down under?
Sarah tries to convince the others that they’re not alone and maybe whoever (or whatever) that’s down here can help. She’s pushed aside, because their only concern is the injured Holly. The “daylight” that she saw was phosphorus in the rocks, which glows. They’re two miles underground and the only light is theirs.
They arrive at a waterfall. Water is life, right? It can lead them home. Juno, followed by the others, climbs the rocks spilling with water and they make a gruesome discovery. A chamber of bones—animal and human. Using Holly’s video camera with the infrared light, they learn they’ve literally crossed over into the land of the dead.
And in one of horror’s best jump scares, we finally see a cave dweller—pointed ears and teeth. This causes chaos among the group and they scatter.
All Is Lost: In this beat, something must die, and so it does: Holly. One of the “crawlers” leaps onto her, perhaps smelling her blood, and rips her throat out with its ratlike front teeth, killing her instantly. Juno and the crawler play tug of war with Holly’s corpse. The rest of the group scatter in all directions (apparently the adage of “safety in numbers” thrown to the cavern winds). According to Blake in Save the Cat! Strikes Back, the All Is Lost moment often mirrors the Catalyst moment but with higher stakes. That is exactly the case here, as what was supposed to be a nice and exciting weekend outing among some friends has now turned horribly bad and fatal. The whiff of death is present.
Dark Night of the Soul: Sarah, fleeing, falls, and is knocked unconscious. As Joseph Campbell stated, this is the Inmost Cave where the antagonist lives and the hero must prevail. Sarah and her group have approached and entered this deepest and darkest realm in their journey.
Using her ice axe, Juno, a fierce fighter, wounds one of the crawlers and kills another that ambushes her from behind. In the melee, Beth runs up to assist—and pays dearly for being a friend. Juno mistakes her for another crawler and strikes Beth in the throat with the blade of the ice axe. (A strange kind of payoff and fatal reversal for when Beth knocks Juno into the water in the Opening Image.)
Beth gurgles, falls over, and convulses, and in an important moment that will change the rules of the game, grabs the necklace that Juno wears and pulls it off. Juno’s “sin” has cost the lives of two of her closest friends and now it’s time to pay the check. Confused, troubled, and scared, Juno leaves Beth to die, disappearing into the shadows of the cave.
Sarah awakens and finds Holly’s video camera still running in infrared mode. And Holly. The crawlers move in and like something out of Night of the Living Dead, the cave dwellers rip out the girl’s entrails, feasting on them. Sarah, trying not to lose her lunch, watches through the monitor.
Eventually, the crawlers leave, honed into the shouts from Juno from somewhere in the caverns. Sarah finds some kerosene in an old tank (that presumably belonged to some previous spelunkers) and rigs a torch using the ice axe on Holly’s leg and some of her clothing.
Elsewhere in the caves, Juno saves Rebecca and Sam from one of the crawlers that attacks them. Juno’s handy with the ice axe and snapping necks—she’s in full survival mode.
The corpse of the crawler allows Sam to do a forensic investigation of the creature so they can figure out what they’re up against. They learn that the crawlers are blind, using echolocation, like that of a bat, to hone in on prey. It’s likely they’re distant descendants of the cave dwellers that once drew on the walls. However, they’ve evolved to live completely in the dark like blind cavefish. Juno also reveals that she found chalk arrows from the previous party that had been down here—a way out. They just have to find Sarah and go!
Back in the Inmost Cave, Sarah discovers Beth, who’s still alive. She learns that Juno left Beth to die. Her dying friend, now the Half Man, warns not to trust Juno—and then Sarah discovers what’s in Beth’s hand. The necklace that Juno wore. Beth says it was a gift from Paul. The words LOVE EACH DAY are inscribed on it, a call back to the Debate scene when Sarah said those same words, a favorite Paul expression.
It seems that Juno, who was supposedly their best friend, was deceptive to them both. Beth, who can’t move, asks Sarah to kill her. Sarah, hesitantly does so with a rock, crushing Beth’s head. This is another interesting call back to when Beth was helping Sarah in the pipeline tunnel from being crushed by the impending cave-in.
The Dark Night of the Soul is a multi-scene beat where the protagonist’s ego is stripped away and they learn their most valuable lesson—Sarah learns that she’s now alone and must fend for herself. Beth is gone and Juno is an enemy—she must rely only on herself now in this cold, dark world underground if she’s to survive.
It’s also worth noting that the Debate and the Dark Night of the Soul work in concert with each other, the DNOTS echoing the Debate but with higher stakes, also according to Blake’s third book. This LOVE EACH DAY moment executes that perfectly; it also ties A and B stories together.
A crawler, a small one, jumps on Sarah’s back. She kills it easily. Another crawler, a female and the mother of the juvenile crawler, mourns the death of its child. This is a funhouse mirror moment of Sarah mourning the death of her own child, Jessie. The two mothers battle in a thick, moldering pool of blood.
Break into Three: Impaling the monster mother in the head with a broken deer horn the same way Paul was impaled with the copper pipe, Sarah arises from the blood covered in gore (which resembles embryonic fluid), reborn and looking like a cave dweller herself. She’s transformed during this arduous task, gone completely primal. It’s going to take being primal, fighting troglodyte to troglodyte to survive! She’s seized the torch and is ready for action!
Echoing the Catalyst/All Is Lost beats and the Debate/Dark Night of the Soul beats, the Break into Three beat parallels the Break into Two beat with higher stakes. This is not the fragile Sarah we’ve seen at the beginning, dependent on Juno, Beth, and her other friends to initially climb down into the cave and not trusting her instincts. Blood has been spilled, death is everywhere, and the stakes are raised.
1. Gathering of the Team – Juno, Rebecca, and Sam decide to head for the exit, following the chalk arrows. Juno doesn’t want to leave Sarah behind as she’s knows she’s somewhere back in the caves.
2. Executing the Plan – Juno shouts for Sarah, which attracts a pack of crawlers to their location. Freaked out and scared, Sam heads out, followed by her older sister, Rebecca. Sam, who had rope-burn injuries to her hand when they crossed the chasm earlier, tries to make a solo crossing, leaving Juno and Rebecca behind.
3. High Tower Surprise – It’s the last mistake Sam ever makes, as a crawler is waiting for her and tears out her throat, leaving her dangling from her safety harness in the cavern above. The crawlers catch up to Rebecca and Juno. Rebecca gets ripped apart. Juno does a hail mary and leaps into the chasm, splashing into the icy water.
4. Dig Deep Down – After dispatching a crawler in the water (the one that Sam stuck with a knife before she died), Juno swims to the wall and hoists herself up. At the last moment, she almost falls—but someone catches her. Sarah! Covered in blood, Sarah has the intense 1,000-yard stare of someone who’s gone over the edge. There’s a touched by the divine sense about Sarah, which is common in this sub beat, as if she’s now a guardian angel and untouchable in this subterranean hell.
She asks Juno about Rebecca. Juno says she’s dead. Then Sarah asks about Beth. Juno also says that Beth is dead. You can see the gears click in Sarah’s mad mind—she set up Juno for a test and she failed. It’s like Beth warned her with her dying breath—Don’t trust Juno.
5. Executing the New Plan – Sarah and Juno head out of the cave, using every flare and resource they have—ice axes! They follow the chalk arrows. A troop of crawlers, anticipating this move apparently, wait for them. Juno and Sarah fight with their all punch, finger-gouging, elbowing, kicking, and torching. They’re forces to be reckoned with and they make short work of the crawlers. They’re both vicious animals.
But Sarah proves she’s more—she shows Juno the necklace that says LOVE EACH DAY on it. Juno is aghast, knowing what that means. Sarah hacks Juno in the knee with her ice axe and leaves her former friend for dead, just as Juno did to Beth. Wounded and alone, Juno faces another platoon of crawlers with her fate unknown.
Sarah runs through the passages, Juno’s screams behind her. She falls, knocking herself out. When she awakens, there’s light.
The other cave entrance that was noted back on the prehistoric map. The false victory of the Midpoint has become a true victory! Sarah climbs the bones and returns to the surface world.
She then steals Juno’s truck and drives away as fast as she can. Stopping on the side of the road, Sarah stops to vomit and catch her breath—it’s over.
However, she’s startled by the “ghost” of the bloody Juno, sitting next to her in the truck with a vengeful look. (This is where the American version ends.)
Final Image: Sarah wakes up back in the cave. She never left. It was just an escape fantasy. It’s just her and her torch, which looks strangely like birthday candles. Sarah smiles, Jessica “stands” in front of her, holding her birthday cake. The once-sad mother is now at peace, sharing a birthday with her daughter. It’s a “descent into madness” where Sarah has climbed her way to the core of her own insanity.
In a way, rather ironically, she finds peace with it, getting to spend her time at Jessie’s “birthday” gathering. The inside of the caverns, lit in pink by firelight, almost suggest the labyrinthian cavities of the brain. And Sarah is finally happy.
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