Bechdel Test Canon: The Descent
Today's entry marks the first official selection of the horror genre. It isn't my intention to project ill will toward familial bonding the Friday after Thanksgiving, as I'm having a fine time with my partner and parents. However, maybe this post will entertain those waking from food comas or folks heading back home.
I'm a recent convert to horror movies. I started my master's program in media studies four years ago dead against them. Apart from being an easy scare, I was convinced as an avowed feminist that there was nothing salvageable about such a violent genre. I was quickly put in my place by some members of my cohort, whose feminist identity was defined in part because of their horror film fandom. My appreciation began with reading portions of film studies professor Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I learned a great deal from her theorization of the archetypal Final Girl, a smart, resilient, often androgynous protagonist with feminist potential for whom Halloween's Laurie Strode serves as an exemplar. A smart commenter brought up the Final Girl in my recent post on Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl. The influence of Clover's ground-breaking book continues to be felt in the academy, and insinuates itself in movies like Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. I continue to be inspired and challenged by commentary from sites like Dark Room and Fangirltastic.
Another important aspect of horror movies that needs more critical inquiry is the foregrounding of female homosocial bonding. Recent releases star groups of women engaging in physically exhausting or extreme activities. British writer-director Neil Marshall's 2005 feature The Descent focuses on six women who go spelunking in an unmapped cave system in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.
The sextet meet a year after Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) lost her husband and daughter in a car accident following a rafting trip in Scotland with Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid). Juno, the lone racially ambiguous character with potentially romantic feelings for Sarah despite a previous affair with her husband, organized the expedition in her honor. The trio are joined by Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora Jane Noone, who starred in The Magdalene Sisters, an Irish film based on true events in an asylum that passes the Bechdel Test), Juno's new friend whose butch swagger and closely cropped haircut allow room for queer interpretations.
The group encounters trouble about 30 minutes in when the first tunnel collapses, almost trapping Sarah. After this incident, Juno reveals that this is cave has not been explored before and thus has no known exit. The group uncovers cave drawings that suggest a second exit, though paranoia is already splintering them. Holly falls down a hole and breaks her leg. While the others assist Holly, Sarah wanders off and believes to have found an etiolated humanoid drinking from a pool several feet away. The group discredit Sarah's vision, though eventually a group of crawlers rip out Holly's throat and pick off Rebecca and Sam. Juno accidentally stabs Beth in the neck with a pickaxe during a battle with the crawlers, which eventually leads Beth to reveal the truth about Juno's past indiscretion to Sarah before requesting to be killed. Juno and Sarah engage in their final melée with the crawlers before Sarah wedges the tell-tale axe in Juno's leg and escapes alone. She rests in the car the group drove in, only to confront a blood-streaked Juno seated in the passenger seat. The movie cuts from this hallicination to the final scene with Sarah deep in the cave, visited by a recurring vision of her daughter presenting a birthday cake for her mother. Exodus seems nigh impossible, while the 2009 sequel becomes a foregone conclusion.
Overall, I like The Descent. Though the majority of the crew meet an untimely demise, they are depicted as tough explorers who fight just as hard for survival as their male counterparts would. I think Sarah's grief over her daughter is thoughtful without debilitating her faculties. I also appreciate that the movie does not collapse gore, sexual violence, and exploitative representations of female sexuality in ways characteristic of contemporary releases like Eli Roth's 2007 feature Hostel: Part II, which also featured a female cast but aligned with the regrettable torture porn subgenre. While I think we should question the authority of the ubiquitous male writer-director to shape horror productions, I think Marshall does a good job representing his female characters.
However, I'm not entirely sold on the presence of the crawlers. I'm not sure whether they are meant to stand in for the cruel erasure of Native American populations or the injustices waged against Appalachian communities, as they are clumsily incorporated into the larger narrative. Furthermore, I'm not convinced that they need to be there. Danny Boyle recently directed 127 Hours, which stars James Franco as real-life mountain climber Aron Ralston, who cut off his own arm after being stuck under a rock in a Utah canyon for over five days. Though I haven't seen it, the reality seems pretty terrifying. Thus, though it would be an altogether different movie, I believe The Descent would be even more harrowing if it stayed out of the supernatural realm.
Thanks to friend, colleague, and fellow University of Texas at Austin alumna Caitlin Collins. The second chapter of her master's thesis, Women's Homosociality in Recent Horror Film, dealt specifically with The Descent and was integral to the formation of this post.
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