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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.

Laurie Strode in Halloween

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 Descent poster

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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Comments

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The Descent

You really should read the entire Clover book--it's long, but worth it if you're into horror and gender. I will also recommend The Dread of Difference. About The Descent--it wouldn't really be a horror film without the creatures. I don't think 127 Hours is horror; it seems to me more of a survivor story. Back to the post--The Descent wouldn't be horror without the creatures, which my students named the "vagina bots." Many of us think the caves were a symbol or metaphor for the female vulva--dark, damp mysterious, and ultimately dangerous to anyone who enters. It's a big old vagina dentata! I don't think the creatures make sense--nor do they have to. It's a horror film! But it is fun to consider the Bechdel test with this movie--it is populated almost entirely by women, and they do talk to each other about something other than men, mostly. BUt it is also important to notice and consider that the main conflict between Juno and her friend is a man, and this conflict in some ways fuels the plot. My students decided it was ultimately a good movie, but not quite feminist. :)

I have read the entire book,

I have read the entire book, Elizabeth. I only read selected excerpts for school, but read the whole book after I got my master's degree and was working on a project involving representations of female deejays in contemporary horror film. I just wanted to focus on the Final Girl in this post for the sake of brevity. I haven't read Grant's book yet (or Isabel Pinedo's book on women and horror spectatorship), but have encountered Barbara Creed's book The Monstrous Feminine. I'm by no means an expert on horror, as my research interests focus on music convergence. Nonetheless, I have warmed up to the genre.


I haven't seen 127 Hours, so I can't comment further on it as to whether it follows generic guidelines. However, I think the climax would elicit a spectatorial reaction akin to the visceral reactions often felt in body horror movies. But this is why I noted that The Descent would be an altogether different movie without the crawlers hanging out in the cave/vagina/haunted womb.  

Alyx Vesey

Torture porn

I'm kind of hoping there's some sort of moratorium on the term torture porn eventually. It's the sort of buzz term that screams "I'm not interested in actually reviewing this film."

I have to admit I'm not much of a fan of The Descent. I do think it may have something to do with me seeing the version with the American ending first but even the original ending left me feeling pretty much the same way as you about the monsters. It is a pretty well-made film but there's nothing underneath that. I'm just reminded of Homer Simpson making up his own version of movies when he gets bored: "Wait, I'm confused. So the cops knew internal affairs was setting them up?"

Marshall's subsequent film, Doomsday, is a much better experience especially for a Road Warrior fanatic like myself.

Yeah, I'm no fan of the term

Yeah, I'm no fan of the term either or any other term that brings "porn" into the descriptor (see also: food porn, poverty porn, etc.). I brought it in to put the movie in a larger cinematic context, but I really hate the idea of "torture" and "porn" sharing space together.

I'll have to check out Doomsday. Heard good things. Thanks for the recommendation!

Alyx Vesey

Sequel...

Thanks so much for the multiple shout outs, Alyx!

Anyway, your timing in writing about The Descent is impeccable for me because I recently watched the sequel. In the unfortunate tradition of horror sequels, The Descent: Part II poorly rehashes the original material, adding little of value to the next chapter. In many ways, though, seeing this installment merely reinforced the strengths of the original that you discussed: the solid acting, economical writing, and high production values (the lighting in particular). In scene after scene in the sequel, what little suspense that exists gets obliterated by cartoonish scenes of grotesqueness (exhibit a: a scene in which two climbers find a cavern that turns out to be a "crawler toilet"). By contrast, The Descent is at its scariest when shots are framed to obscure the crawlers rather than dwell on their every feature. The makers of The Descent: Part II did not heed this advice.

***SPOILER ALERT***

What fascinates me about the sequel, though, is the way the same tendency toward melodrama in the first film plays out in the follow-up. Both Sarah and Juno return in the second film (this makes no sense given their fates in the original, but whatever). The tensions in the first film get resolved in the second, with Sarah ultimately rocking the fallen Juno in her arms and crying out "I'm sorry." A similar reversal occurs in the final scene: a female police officer who escorts Sarah into the caves is able to escape when Sarah intentionally sacrifices herself to the crawlers. Unfortunately, the film really regresses on the final moments when a "hillbilly" type kills the female cop and throws her back into the crawlers' cave. The sequel undermines the ambiguity of the crawlers and their origins (which I appreciated in, despite your valid criticism) that The Descent maintained. So while I could not stand The Descent: Part II, I did appreciate the ways in which it celebrated female unity and reconciliation.

Thanks for your take on the

Thanks for your take on the sequel, Caitlin. If I had enough room, I would have considered viewing it, as sequels and remakes are integral to understanding how the genre operates. I really appreciate your commentary.

Alyx Vesey

Clover

Since Clover is mentioned, I suppose I should rehash this comment from an earlier post (Yes, I've read the entire book)-

Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which seems to be an obligatory mention on every single article on misogyny and slasher films, is vastly overrated. While the 'Final Girl' is a part of some (not all) slasher films, it is subordinate to violence against the women characters. She is there to offer the audience some relief after seeing so many women being butchered - at least one survived. Usually she is the one most sexually pure, innocent and mentally fragile; seeing dangers lurking in every corner. This is true of Laurie Strode in Halloween. After seeing her (barely) survive, we the audience can feel good; the pain of the torture and killing we've just seen is washed away. My problem is that Clover's book attempts to portray the existence of the 'Final Girl' as the most important feature of slasher films, when the actual violence is. Think of a slasher film without the 'Final Girl'. House of 1000 Corpses? Wolf Creek? Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning? Drag Me to Hell? Saw 3D? They still fit the genre. A slasher film without someone getting killed? It doesn't fit the genre.

Arguably the first modern slasher film was Psycho, in that film the "Final Girl" would be Marion's sister Lillian. But to argue that the film was ultimately 'about' Lillian would be absurd. The film was about Norman Bates and centered on the famous 'shower scene', of a nude Marion, who at that point you are led to believe is the protagonist, being butchered.

While I agree that Clover's

While I agree that Clover's book misses the mark in a number of ways and can be reductive, I would dispute your characterization of "Men, Women, and Chainsaws" as portraying the Final Girl as the sole feature of the slasher film. Clover's work often gets reduced to the Final Girl concept, but in all actuality, she acknowledges many facets of the slasher in the chapter focused on that subgenre--she discusses the role of violence, for instance, in the slasher film, as well as the archetypal killer. The Final Girl is a key piece, but not the only part of her discussion. Moreover, she's quick to acknowledge the regressive traits of the slasher sub-genre while at the same time acknowledging the empowering elements of the Final Girl. In short, "Men, Women, and Chainsaws" is not a wholesale celebration of horror films as somehow inherently "feminist," but a response to critics (Siskel and Ebert, for example) who condemned these films as wholly regressive without considering progressive elements.

I appreciate your points,

I appreciate your points, BeetJuice, but I side with Caitlin (who more than proves her credentials with her astute comments) on this one. While I take your point about Clover's book being the go-to source in the place of other texts (and welcome your recommendations of better horror scholarship and criticism), I also dispute your take that the Final Girl is the sole feature of slasher films or that Clover intended to trumpet the feminist merits of horror with her seminal book. There's a lot more nuance in her work, along with the work of Isabel Pinedo, Robin Wood, Linda Williams, and a host of scholars who consider the genre.

I would also point out Clover's hailing of Silence of the Lambs, a movie she argues is the first mainstream, be-Oscared slasher film that shifts generic expectations (I also recommend "Taboos and Totems Cultural Meanings of The Silence of the Lambs," Janet Staiger's essay on the film). Not only does Final Girl Clarice Starling rescue her charge, a woman who was potentially Buffalo Bill's next victim, but she has a complex relationship with mentor/nemesis Hannibal Lecter. While no discussion of this movie can commence without acknowledgement of the icky transphobia operating in the characterization of Bill, I think there's a lot to unpack here.

Alyx Vesey

Interesting... I was curious

Interesting... I was curious how this would be interpreted as it seems to pass the Bechdel test but, while I enjoyed it, I didn't leave with the same impression of the women. While they were indeed bad-ass, I felt sort of beaten over the head with the overall view of women as petty bitches who are constantly after their friends' husbands, throwing one another under the bus, and seeking revenge. Neil Marshall has been criticized as not liking women very much, and while I'm obviously unsure if this is true as I don't know the guy, I think this film could make a pretty good argument for that. The fact that all, or almost all, of them die in the end is also not the most favorable evidence.

Big fan of horror films! :)

Ever since I can remember, I've always loved horror movies - the scarier and gorier, the better! That voodoo doll from "Trilogy of Terror" still creeps me out! ;)

There are lots of films out there where the woman comes out on top/survives. The first that comes to mind is "I Spit on Your Grave", and "Last House on the Left" (70s version) comes in at a close second. More recent films include "Teeth" (it makes every guy I know cross his legs LOL!) and of course the Freddy films (Nancy never did die!). Even the brutal ones like Texas Chainsaw Massacre usually has the woman getting away at the end, and the main reason is usually because in spite of everything, she manages to keep even a sliver of common sense and a will to live about her.

Now I will admit every so often, I like movies (horror or action) where the bad guy wins. Mostly, because it has me reflect on the movie that much more in anticipation of a sequel. It just can't end that way! =:o Noooooooo!!!!! It's the ultimate surprise!

Teeth makes this reviewer

Teeth makes this reviewer cross her legs too. Actually, the scene in the gynecologist's office made me head for the bathroom, take some deep breaths, and get some water. I thought I was going to faint. I really like that movie, and wish that I could review it here. I have feminist friends who argue both sides of that one, and I regret not being able to launch the debate in this forum. Also, it was filmed in my chosen home of Austin, Texas.

Speaking of texts that divide feminists, I'd be interested to hear more about your thoughts on Grave (which Clover writes about at length in what is probably my favorite chapter of Chainsaws) and would be interested to read a critical comparison between the original and the remake.

Finally, it's interesting that you reveal that you sometimes root for the bad guys (and girls). Apart from the potential to spin a movie into a franchise with unending sequels (and remakes) John Carpenter once said that his girl heroines and the villains have the most in common with one another, specifically their sublimation of sexual desire. Many scholars (like Robin Wood) have run with this idea, noting the queer potential, childhood trauma, and empathetic possibilities of horror villains.

Alyx Vesey

S&man (Sandman) Comments on

S&man (Sandman)

Comments on horror films, horror directors, gender, final girls, voyeurism, horror actors vs. directors, male domination of a genre, the clique of horror fans, all sorts. Beyond the overall plot, which might be great to you by itself, I say bring your analyzing hat because there is a lot in there via subtext. It's great (especially if you're used to the genre).

On netflix and interweb streaming sites.

sorry, also wanted to say

sorry, also wanted to say that Carol J. Clover is the main research-based talking head throughout the movie.

Candyman

I never thought about it in these terms, but I think my favorite horror movie, Candyman, passes the Bechdel test. I usually think about race and class in that movie -- I love it's mythic geography of Chicago -- I would like to read a good feminist reading of the film.