(Neil Marshall, 2005)
(essay by Troy)
The story in Neil Marshall’s film begins with Sarah, who loses her husband and daughter in a car accident. We pick up one-year later as Alpha-female Juno (who was having an affair with Sarah’s husband) has gathered Sarah and four other women to go on a spelunking excursion in the Appalachians. The only problem is Juno has taken them to an unmapped cave with the hope that they can gloriously discover the cave themselves in an attempt to fix past wounds (and obviously, her guilt at sleeping with her friend’s husband has something to do with this feeling of setting things back the way they were). The six women enter the cave and first have to deal with interpersonal squabbles and the natural trials of cave diving before finding that there may be something much more unsettling lurking deep within.
The structure of the film is of interest here, as it attempts to provide the best of both worlds. The first 50 minutes are spent building dread, tension, and atmosphere, adding in the psychological horror that stems from losing a loved one (think Don’t Look Now), while the last 45 minutes are unabashed adrenaline soaked survival horror, with all hell breaking loose just as soon as the women think things have gotten as bad as they possibly can.
The cave functions as a fantastic setting to get the ultimate tension and horror out of the circumstances. Marshall uses the ambient light sources the women use to illuminate the darkness, playing with our viewpoint of what we can see if we just squint hard enough. He also chooses to employ a 2.35:1 scope, yet manages to keep the moments in the cave tight and extremely claustrophobic, most notably when Sarah gets stuck in an extremely narrow opening, causing panic for both her and the viewer. In many ways, these early tension points with the women getting stuck, suffering a cave-in, and having to cross a giant chasm evoke fear without any need of monsters and are more fraught with fear than the horrific events that follow.
Of course, the film’s use of a cave as the setting opens the film up for plentiful metaphorical reading. Though there is probably room for theorizing the cave as a womb, I find much more ground in it being representative of the Freudian idea of the unconscious mind. There lurking in the dark recesses of an unexplored region lie the uncanny monsters of the id, waiting to rise to the surface. Diving into the cave is akin to Sarah’s descent into her psyche, an attempt to work through the issues that have plagued her since her family’s death. Trapped, she has to go deeper and deeper to come out alive on the other side (which does literally happen in the less satisfying American release of the film*). By shining a light on these monstrous creatures she ultimately discovers Juno’s betrayal that has led to so much of her suffering and in the end is finally able to find peace (at least in the original ending*).
Random as it may be, having Carrie and The Descent back-to-back in the countdown is entirely appropriate. Carrie deals with a teenage girl that suffers a traumatic experience and then, with blood serving as the catalyst, proceeds to use her rage to exact fiery revenge. Sarah, who has suffered severe trauma, undergoes her own baptism in blood, leading to her rebirth as all her repressed emotions explode to the surface in a violent outburst. Marshall does all of this with more than just thematic touches, also incorporating some obvious visual homages to DePalma’s film (the sight of Sarah covered in blood, the close-ups of the fury in her eyes, the sight of her arm coming through the ground)**.
The ending of both films provides a lingering nihilistic sensation, but Marshall offers a coda that provides an air of acceptance for his protagonist. Carrie, having disposed of everyone, ultimately comes to accept her situation by taking herself to hell. Sarah, though, is finally able to conquer her demons after her violent catharsis, as she finally is able to envision her daughter’s face looking at her (throughout the film, we see Sarah’s visions of her dead daughter bringing her a birthday cake, during which Sarah can only see the back of her daughter’s head). It’s as hopeful a downbeat ending as you are likely to see — though Sarah is inevitably going to die, she has seemingly come to terms with her transformation and is happy to see her daughter again in her final moments.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
*Of course a lot of how you view the film depends upon the ending you watch — for an explanation of the differences, see here and then for a more in-depth look, check out Jim Emerson’s great dissection, here.
**Marshall is also sure to play to the horror connoisseur, as he peppers his film with genre homages. Amongst those I’ve recognized would be Alien, Zombi, City of The Living Dead, Carrie, Deliverance, The Shining, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Don’t Look Now, and a non-horror entry, Apocalypse Now.
(This film appeared on Troy’s list at #33, Kevin’s at #12, Robert’s at #37, and Jamie’s at #41)