When it comes to interesting roles for women in horror movies, it’s slim pickings. If they are the leading characters, it’s because they’re the target of a male gaze gone terribly wrong (stalking, haunting, hunting), or they’re on a revenge mission, usually because of rape. The standard depictions tend to run the gamut of heaving bosoms, see-through tank tops, and loud, rapid breathing. For a while, I had to resign myself to wading through some dismal and problematic stuff in order to enjoy a horror film. Until I watched The Descent, a movie that not only passes the Bechdel Test but practically breaks it.
Films that pass the Bechdel Test (the guideline that a work of fiction must depict two or more women who have a conversation about something other than a man) can be tricky to pinpoint, but finding a horror movie that passes is just outright difficult: you’d be surprised (or not) at just how many of your favorite genre flicks would fail. It gets to be pretty depressing once you start examining media with even just this one lens, since the test doesn’t factor in race.
The non-spoilery recap of The Descent: five close girlfriends rally to take their grieving friend Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) on a trip, in the aftermath of a tragic accident. Our hardcore ladies decide to get their yearly adrenaline fix by going spelunking in a never before explored cave, where an underground mishap traps them, forcing them to look for an alternate route of escape and driving them further into danger. In addition to being lost miles under the surface, the women learn to their dismay that they’re not alone. The premise of being lost underground in a dark cave on its own makes things creepy crawly, but add subterranean monsters that don’t need to see, relying on sound to hunt? NOPE.
The Descent is awesome on so many counts: the aforementioned monster, a group of badass women with climbing pickaxes, and lots of brutal ass kicking and gore as they fight for their lives. Everything about this beautiful blood soaked movie is about women, from the cast and storyline, to the way the relationship dynamics between the characters. The only men in this movie are background extras (or Sarah’s husband), and are only briefly glimpsed in the first five minutes.
The women in The Descent are anything but frail, shrinking violets, but they can’t be boxed into Hollywood’s caricature of overly exaggerated “strong women” either. They are simply average women who lead an active lifestyle, and physically and mentally react to their situation in believable ways. The women’s reactions when they’re first introduced to danger are refreshing. While they do initially freak out in panic and tears, they pull themselves together and come up with a plan to get out – before the movie has 20 minutes left from ending.
The decision to have only female characters opens more possibilities for the story and its direction, really focusing on Sarah and the dynamics of her friendship with the other women. This probably wouldn’t have worked as well, had The Descent been a mixed-gender cast, since Hollywood is not capable of writing platonic relationships: if a man and a woman are even so much as within the fringes of the same group, everything must have romantic or sexual tension, history, or premonition
The best part of The Descent is that it’s not shy about allowing its women to be violent, brutal, and cruel. It’s “kill or be killed” down there, and our intrepid six – particularly leading lady Sarah and her closest friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) – aren’t afraid to savagely fight back with all they’ve got. This sort of praise may sound odd, as we expect a certain level of violence in these movies, but consider the fact that most of such violence is not only gratuitous, but directed towards the women. On the other hand, when it’s the women who are meting out pain, they usually resort to feebly pawing at the bad guy, too busy crying to really get in any effective blows. Not so with our ladies! There’s grappling, eye gouging, deadly aim, and lots of pickax action, all fueled by rage. Halfway through, you realize that Sarah and her friends have ceased to be scared and are now in a primal berserker mode, which sets up some tense parts when their anger is misdirected and the women start to turn on each other. You can’t expect to keep secrets from your BFF, especially when you’re trapped in a cave with blood thirsty monsters and it’s become a matter of “me or you”, literally.
For the most part, The Descent is an anomaly when it comes to horror movies, a film completely driven by strong female characters. On the other hand, it’s an example that it can be done. And even besides passing the Bechdel, it’s just a really good horror movie that is always on my short list of recommendations. So go watch it for yourself!