A Sense of an Ending in THE DESCENT

First, as this is just all about the end of THE DESCENT, then, yep, it’s just chock full of spoilers. So stop here if:

  • you’ve not seen it
  • you’re going to see it
  • and you don’t like to know how a thing’s going to end

Not meaning to say THE DESCENT has a gimmick-ending or anything — we don’t change perspective and slowly become aware that these are just action figures in a toy bin. But the two endings it does have, in being at odds with each other, are also kind of polarizing the horror audience one way or the other, it seems.

To sum up beforehand: whereas the ‘edited-down’ US ending has Sarah disable Juno — both as punishment for accidentally killing one of their crew and for possibly having had an affair with Sarah’s dead husband (before he died), to say nothing of how leaving Juno there focuses the crawlers on Juno, giving Sarah time to sneak away — then crawl up to daylight, stumble-run to her little Bronco II, blast off down a dirt road then finally pull over for a good cry, where the ‘ghost’ of Juno can jack in the box up from the passenger seat, the UK version goes a step further: with a closing shot of Sarah ‘projecting’ her birthday girl/dead daughter in the cave with her (thus ‘closing’ the candles & cake motif that’s been going on), we understand that everything since diabling Juno has been wishful thinking, pretty much, on Sarah’s part. The crawl to daylight never happened, the jouncy Bronco ride, Juno in the passenger seat, none of it. It was all just a manifestation either of her craziness or an expression of the type of ‘vision’ people are supposed to have at the moment of their death, when they think they’re actually living, actually getting away. But of course, as the final shot of that UK cut reveals, this is it for Sarah: the crawlers are coming in from all angles here, and the daughter’s not really here. All we’re really glad for it that she’s found a happy place in her head.

For those of you haven’t seen this UK ending, it’s on Youtube.

Anyway, which is the stronger ending, right?

In spite of American audience’s general intolerance of ambiguous HAUTE TENSION type endings, still, the UK ending seems to be the more popular (two exceptions to this would be JACOB’S LADDER and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, each of which pull the carpet out at the end in a way the American audience kind of liked). Rather than try to ascribe or guess at motives for this, I think it’s probably a bit more worthwhile to simply compare what’s going on with each of these endings.

With the US cut, what we get is the Marilyn Chambers (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) pattern, of one ragged survivor being ‘reborn’ into daylight, all that. Only, by inserting Juno into that truck, what we understand then — if we can disallow that Juno’s a literal ghost, in a story that’s had no ghosts so far — is that, even though Sarah’s overcome her grief, finally, by killing Juno, still, the price of that is some pretty serious guilt. Which is a very nice, quiet little escalation right at the end, and even allows us to end on a scream.

With the UK cut, as it includes the US cut, of course we get the same thing, but with the added benefit/twist that UNDERTOW, say, has conditioned us for: the main character finding her ‘happy’ place at the end. Which is nice too, as it takes apart our already ripped-apart sense of relief that at least Sarah has dealt with her grief. That she’s still imagining herself with her dead daughter suggests that her grief has never left — that nothing so easy as a cave full of crawlies can cure her. Which is nice, as it lends some dignity to grief, I think, while at the same time taking apart that ridiculous idea in horror that even one person could survive that many monsters. So, by using ‘fantasy’ to make the movie finally less ‘fantastic,’ it amps the scare-level up — makes it more real.

Still, though, even though I almost always go for the HAUTE TENSION kind of twists at the ends of things, I think the UK cut of THE DESCENT is the weaker of the two versions here.

To understand why, we have to go back to that AMITYVILLE HORROR remake, a movie with plenty of really and truly startling imagery, the kind that catches you off-guard time and again, even though you know it’s coming. Which is of course what we want from horror, I think. But there’s a point in there where there’s a very important betrayal, which shatters the illusion. It’s when the father is in the bathroom by himself, at the mirror. Up to this point, all the ghosts and apparitions we’ve seen on-screen have been, if not locked into his POV, then at least shot over his shoulder to suggest that, like Jack in THE SHINING, these are all just projections of his growing madness. And that’s great, and terrifying. In that bathroom, however, there’s a point where he looks in the mirror and the camera sweeps around to reveal that, over his shoulder, looking at the side of his head or something, is a demon-thing. Which is to say we can no longer run under the assumption that he’s an updated Jack; now we have to acknowledge that these haunting are specifically exterior to him. Which is to say the camera, then, wasn’t emotionally or in any other way meant to identify with the characters on-screen, but was instead serving to cue us into certain things about the house. Which, I think, at least in a movie that’s not been trading in that, is a betrayal, and makes the thing on-screen suddenly just a movie, no longer something that can or should scare us.

This, I think, is the mistake the UK cut of THE DESCENT makes, though to a lesser degree (and, as it’s at the end, where the rules can and often do change [especially in horror], in a safer place as well). Whereas the US cut ties things up nicely, with Sarah’s guilt, the UK cut attempts to embed that guilt within the context of a fantasy/projection. Which, I’m not suggesting that in the UK version Sarah would feel no guilt. What I am suggesting is that Juno jack-in-the-boxing up from the passenger seat like that is pure jumpscare, for us, the audience. And the reason I say that is that she doesn’t take that guilt out with her to the ‘real’ world of the cave. Granted, you could argue that what that guilt does is drive her catatonic, into her darydream, all that, or that she drops into her daydream and then the guilt rises and messes it up, but still, and I really think this is important, in the cave she’s just as serene and happy and unburdened with guilt as can be (another read, I suppose, would be that she’s committing suicide to punish herself for what she’s done to Juno, but then what that does is take apart all this ‘personal development’ she’s just achieved).

So, what I’m saying, I guess, is that, as-is, I think the US ending is stronger, as it doesn’t betray itself as a movie and thus deconstruct the scare. Take the Juno-ghost from the passenger seat of the Bronco in the UK cut, however, and I’m perfectly at ease with that ending. I just don’t think it’s possible to have both.

As for my take on the rest of THE DESCENT, it pretty much rocked. Like the posters and banners all said, the best creature-driven horror since ALIEN, and some of the best horror we’ve seen for a while now. My only complaint, I suppose, would be that at a certain point the creatures got thick enough to be not so believable anymore. I’d have much rather have had just a family of four or six of them, doggedly chasing these women through the halls of their ancestral ‘home.’ What you get with fewer monsters, then, is monsters that are more hardy, that don’t die with just the tap of an axe. Or, it’s like that movie DARKNESS (which has one of the better ‘twist’ endings of the last decade, I’d say), with all the kiddie-ghosts shadowing around in all the backgrounds. When it was just a kid or two, man, yeah, there was some terror. In the theater I saw it in, though, when we got to that one scene where the camera switches from a front angle on Anna Paquin standing in a definitely ‘haunted’ room to a rear angle, and we look over the heads of just a throng of ghost-kids, some guy a few rows up summed up the audience’s feelings perfectly: “Goddamn…” And we all laughed — not the tension-releasing kind of laugh you want in a taut story, but the kind of laugh that says that this has stepped over the line now, and’s getting a bit ridiculous. THE DESCENT, while it never got ridiculous, I don’t think, still, it took apart the scare some when we started knowing that there was a thick enough population of these crawlers that there definitely was going to be one around the next corner, and the next, and hanging from the ceiling, etc*. What I’m saying is that it’s the empty rooms that scare us, not the full ones. The stuff we imagine on the walls, that’s where the terror is.

Talking just pure terror, though, that scene early on in THE DESCENT, when that tube of tunnel shifts, blocking them in–if there’s been a more claustrophobic scene in film, I don’t think I’ve seen it. And, yeah, it would have been nice to work a little more of that ‘shifting’ in, I should think–if it’s scary by itself, wouldn’t it be especially scary with a crawler somewhere on your backtrail?

* As to how SCARY MOVIE 29 will spin this, I don’t know. I’d suggest, instead of zombie-looking crawlers, maybe some oldtime miners’ parakeets that’ve been licking the special rock for too long, and are not only huge and toothed and hungry, but have learned to use their whistles for ecolocation. Though, yeah, that’s a full two steps away, instead of the one step the SCARY MOVIE series usually takes. What I’d guess, then, would be some flappers and bootleggers who got caught in a cave-in, and have gone blind over the years, but had enough unlabelled alchohol around that they don’t really care, either. With some duelling banjos in the background, of course.

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