Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent’ is a brutally relentless horror movie that feels like a relic from a bygone era, given the excessively internalized style of horror movies, with their repeatedly emphasized focus on trauma, that are a dime a dozen these days. A film like it could easily have veered into exploitation territory. However, Marshall fleshes his characters out enough and doesn’t engage in gratuitous violence (it’s still extremely gory!) to make the characters simply seem like sustenance for the monsters.

A mixture of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘ and John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance,’ it follows six young girls out on an adventure to reunite and rehabilitate that eventually becomes the complete opposite of that. The gnarly creature designs and the slow build-up to a horrifying scene of carnage combine to create a disturbing horror experience, but one in which the human tragedy resonates far more after the credits roll than the sheer flesh and blood of it.

The Descent Plot Summary


High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Sarah, Beth, and Juno are friends who share a love for adventure and thrill-seeking sports. When the movie begins, the three are out rafting along the rapids somewhere in Scotland. Sarah’s husband, Paul, and daughter, Jessica, are watching and cheering her on. After their activity is over, Beth notices a certain friction between Juno and Paul. On the way back to the hotel, an absent-minded Paul causes an accident with a vehicle carrying steel rods that pierce through the windshield, killing him and Jessica. Sarah survives with some minor injuries and is utterly devastated at the loss of her family, as are her two friends.

A year later, Sarah and Beth go to the Appalachian Mountains on an adventure trip. It’s Sarah who wants this trip as a means of restoring some semblance of normalcy to their friendship. They meet up with Juno at a lodge where they’re staying, along with their mutual friends Rebecca and her younger sister, Sam. Juno has brought with her her protégé, Holly, a cocky young woman who loves jumping from tall heights. Juno has planned the trip. The following morning, they’re all to undertake a spelunking expedition to the nearby Boreham Caves. The friends all chat and catch up on each other’s lives as they prepare to resume the life they’d left behind as a group following Sarah’s tragedy.

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The next day, the six begin their quest. Something is off from the get-go as Juno deliberately leaves the guidebook behind. The depth of the caves seems too much, given how touristy the appeal of Boreham Caves is. They dive in nonetheless, and soon, things start to fall apart. The spaces inside the caves are incredibly cramped, there are no clear routes, and where they find themselves is too deep underground for this whole undertaking to seem even remotely safe.

Juno admits to having lied to them about going to Boreham Caverns. Instead, it’s an unnamed and previously unexplored cave system, different from the ones they were meant to go into. The group is enraged at Juno’s ego trip, but she claims that it was meant to uphold their own ethos of risk-taking and not playing it safe. The danger everyone is in is quickly heightened by their discovery of animal and then human skeletons. Alongside that, they stumble upon extremely old hiking equipment left behind by previous explorers. Perhaps, it belongs to the adventure-seekers who discovered the place but have not lived to tell the tale about the strange creatures that roam this netherworld.

What are the creatures or monsters in The Descent?

The creatures the group runs into are cavemen who have lived in those caverns for millennia. The prehistoric paintings on the walls that the women discovered, similar to the Paleolithic paintings on the walls of Chauvet and Lascaux, prove that these creatures were akin to human beings in the early stages. But because of living in the darkness of the caves, they evolved into subterranean humanoids, who have a resemblance to human beings physically but are entirely feral otherwise. Their pallid skin indicates that they have never been exposed to sunlight, and their pointy ears indicate that they operate entirely on the basis of sound.

They’re completely blind but also fully equipped biologically to live in the dark. They’re expert climbers who can move about all over the uneven topography of the caves as if they’re all flat surfaces. Moreover, these creatures are entirely carnivorous and survive on the flesh of animals and humans, unfortunate enough to have made their way into this realm. The girls’ hypothesis is that they leave the caves to hunt for their food, which they then bring down into the caverns to eat. This has to be a nocturnal activity on their part as these creatures are highly averse to heat or light and, in all possibility, cannot go outside (if they do so) during the day.

The Descent (2005) Ending, Explained

What does Sarah discover about Juno?

The Descent 2005

After getting separated from Juno, Rebecca, and Sam, Sarah comes across a fatally injured Beth. She tells her how Juno is the one who mortally injured her. She doesn’t realize that what Juno did was entirely a reaction to having fought the creatures, and Juno thought that Beth was one of them when she snuck up on her quietly. While Juno was recovering from her shock, Beth tore off the necklace that Juno was wearing. It’s this necklace that Beth hands over to Sarah as a way of proving that she’s untrustworthy. The locket of the necklace has the words ‘Love each day’ on it, something Paul used to say, as Sarah had informed us earlier in the film.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

At the beginning of the film, when Paul leaves with Sarah, Juno’s pained eyes at the sight of him leaving and Beth’s suspicion was meant to clue us into the fact that Sarah was the only person who was completely unaware of her husband having an extramarital affair with Juno. The necklace was a gift from Paul to Juno. When Sarah meets Juno towards the end and learns that Rebecca and Sam are dead, she assumes that Juno sacrificed them to save herself. So she decides to do the same to her by plunging the pick ax into her leg so that she can escape while the creatures’ attention is drawn towards her.

Given that Juno had an affair with Paul, killed Beth (accidentally), and was the only survivor of her group in the cavern, it provides enough reason for Sarah to believe that she’s a diabolical two-faced individual who only cares for herself and is hence, not someone she should feel guilty about leaving behind.

What is interesting to note here is that Juno is the Roman goddess of love and marriage. The film creates this irony by showing that the character named after her essentially ruined a marriage (Paul was ‘distant’ during the drive, after having met Juno, and in all probability, had something to say to Sarah that he was mulling over, which is where his recklessness caused the accident) and that in the end, became her undoing.

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Does Sarah make it out alive?

The movie ends in the US theatrical release after Sarah makes it out of the cave, having accidentally found her way out. In the original release in the UK, though, the ending was a little extended. After having escaped in the SUV, they are brought to the quest; the noise of the passing truck wakes her up from her hallucination as she sees a ghostly Juno sitting next to her in the car. The entire episode of the escape becomes a dream that Sarah had after having run away from Juno while lying inside the caverns. She hallucinates that her daughter Jessica is in front of her, about to cut into her birthday cake.

This visual leitmotif is peppered throughout the film and is meant to be a harbinger of doom. It’s a visualization of the survivor’s guilt she feels, given that her daughter died just days before her birthday. This is what Sarah dreams while she’s in the hospital after the accident, just before finding out that Paul and Jessica are dead.

Another instance where Sarah has this dream is right after she’s been saved by Beth from the disintegrating cave. In the end, the image bookends the incredibly sad year of Sarah’s life as we learn that the glow from the cake’s candle is actually the torch she’d been using till then. She’s still stuck underground in the cave, where there’s no escape possible while the creatures make their way to kill and eat her.  Sarah, therefore, doesn’t make her way out of the cave though the sequel will have something else to say.

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You can watch & stream The Descent on Prime Video and HULU

External Links for The Descent: Letterboxd & IMDb

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