Friday, February 16, 2007

Pansy Monsters and Misogyny

The Descent was, as far as horror flicks go, a disappointing movie. There was a good deal of tension-building, the gore and creepy factors were high, and jumps and quick scares abound, but are not so abundant as to make them cheap. But, despite the good cinematography, the characters, human an non, are less than appealing.

The monsters are ineffectual, confusing, and a bit pathetic. By the end of the movie I almost feel sorry for them as they are, throughout the last half of the movie, being decimated by a only handful of cave-diving bimbos. The ratio of monsters to humans killed is two to one, a veritable slaughter. Usually, it’s scarier if the monsters are hard to kill and strike fear into their victims, except for zombies, who are scary for their mindlessness, painlessness, and sheer numbers.

The monsters are supposed to be post-humans who have lost their eyesight in an adaptation to or as a result of living in dark caves. It is assumed the monsters “see” with sound, with some sort of sonar. Yet they are unable detect nearby prey, even when on top of it. I am able to suspend disbelief that these creatures are adapted from humans; have foregone sight despite hunting on the surface instead of the barren, lifeless cave in which they live; grown pale, slimy, and translucent skin instead of developing a fur to protect them from the cold air in their Appalachian mountain cave; and inexplicably and constantly drool an off-white mucus. I am not able to suspend disbelief that these creatures could not discern the presence or source of a light, even with only vestigial eyes; or that they cannot tell the difference, using sonar, between a cave wall and a human being, no matter how still the human stood; or that, for a creature that hunts, navigates, and relies exclusively on sound, they could not hear or feel the stifled breathing or even the heartbeat of a human that they were literally standing on. These creatures deserved to die, not because they attacked a group of human (who invaded their territory and were a viable food source), but because they were so ill-suited for living. How they had survived long enough to evolve into their current form is baffling. Perhaps the factors of inbreeding within a small population combined with no major predators in the cave explain how this evolutionary anomaly continued to survive.

The Descent also suffers from the misogyny of its writer-director, Neil Marshall (or perhaps it was this viewer’s own gender bias reflecting back at him). Unfortunately, a movie with an all-female cast written by a man is suspect and up for gender scrutiny. And this movie is ripe for the picking.

It is a goldmine of gynocentric metaphors and imagery. The setting for most of the movie, a cave, is a dark and wet womb. This connection is made nearly explicit in the last minutes of the movie when the main heroine of the movie emerges head-first out of a small cave entrance, covered over by underbrush, and wails in relief like a newborn. However, it is curious that this cave is penetrated by women, and that in the cave, instead of a beautiful germ of life, is a deformed, male abomination. In male-like fashion, these female spelunkers claim the cave as their own and delve deeper into the cold dark.

This machismo, though, comes off as less than genuine, a layer of make-up on females clowning a male. But the joke is not on the gender being mocked; it seems to fall on the clowns themselves. Seconds after entering the cave, a swarm of bats encircle one of the heroines. She screams hysterically and incessantly until she is comforted by one of her companions.

An ugly female cattiness hides just underneath the thin veneer of masculinity. As the crisis of being stuck in a cave mounts, the group is in dire need of cohesive control. Despite most females’ knack for very democratic cooperative group control, this bevy falls into chaos quickly, with members of the group making decisions or discovering information without informing the rest, running off, getting hurt, and going into hysterics. The female group dynamic breaks down quickly and inexplicably. So, Juno, the self-proclaimed leader of the group (and biggest culprit of aping manfulness – though I do give her much credit for her monster-ass-kickery), sets up a masculine power hierarchy, but this, too, fails to unify the group.

The most telling scene of discord is the group’s first close encounter with the monsters. Instead of huddling together, the group splits up, running screaming into any dark recess, like cockroaches when the kitchen light is turned on. They abandon one of the group who is injured and can barely move, and watch as she is attacked and dragged off by one of the creatures. This is not to say that any other group, despite the genders of its members, wouldn’t do the same in a frightening crisis. But the actions of this all-female group are starkly contrasted by the immediately following actions of the most “manly” of the group, Juno. While the rest of the group is emitting high-pitched squeals and running for cover, only she goes after her injured friend. She plays tug-of-war with a monster over the dying body of her companion, and then injures that creature and kills another. Juno turns out to be proactive, courageous, and effective, while the other women are selfish and ineffectual (pronounced “pansy”). For this reason, I chose to identify Juno as the hero; Sarah, the protagonist of the movie, had run off into the cave alone, screaming. But Juno is not the hero. She is made out to be the villain, as the audience later finds out. A character with positive masculine traits is vilified, but a character with negative feminine traits is made a hero.

When first attacked by the monsters, Juno kills one of the creatures and, in the heat of battle, accidentally and mortally wounds one of her companions. The woman crumples to the ground, grabs a charm hanging around Juno’s neck, and dies (or so the audience and Juno believes) in a pool of blood from a gaping wound in her neck. The woman is later found to be alive by Sarah. And instead of these two friends saying some heartfelt goodbye to each other, the expiring woman, wracked with pain and chocking on her own blood, is dying (literally) to tell Sarah the latest bit of gossip: that it wasn’t the monsters that killed her, but Juno. To prove it, she gives her the charm she ripped from Juno’s neck. The dying woman tells Sarah that Juno attacked her and left her to die, forgetting to mention that she snuck up on Juno immediately after Juno killed a monster, and in the darkness of the cave Juno probably mistook her for another attacker. (And if she had acted as dead as she did after she fell to the ground, I would have left her, too, if I were Juno and there were monsters lurking nearby.)

Juno meets up with the two other remaining companions besides Sarah. Juno suggests they look for Sarah; the other two refuse. Again, bravery is vilified and the women are made to look cowering and self-serving. So, the reunited group fights their way through the cave. Meanwhile, Sarah fights and kills the only child and mother monster we see in the movie. She subsequently falls into a puddle of tar or perhaps menstrual blood and emerges, slow-motion Rambo-style, a wild-eyed badass.

Juno’s group is killed off except for herself before she meets back up with Sarah. Sarah questions Juno about the others, and Juno indicates that they are dead. Then Sarah asks specifically asks about the woman Juno accidentally maimed. Juno admits that she saw her die, but glosses over the part where she plunged a pick through her neck. (Who would mention something like that, especially when monsters are hot on your trail in the middle of a dark and creepy cave?) Sarah construes this to be an admission of guilt on the part of Juno.

Juno and Sarah advance to an exit, fighting a large group of monsters, and surprisingly easily trounce them. After the immediate enemies are vanquished, with more on the way, Sarah shows Juno the charm the woman she killed snatched from her accidental killer. Then, without asking Juno to explain herself in the supposed murder of their friend, Sarah stabs Juno in the leg and abandons her, leaving her to fight an oncoming rush of monsters alone with a bum leg.

Thus the character with (what I perceive to be masculine, probably because of my gender) positive traits – loyalty, bravery, reason – is killed off by the “hero” that trusts gossip over logic and almost literally stabs her friend in the back out of cattiness. If I was a woman, I would be offended.

If in The Descent, the women had acted more like the monsters – sticking together, defending their own, fighting with each other and not against each other – and the monsters had acted more like the women – bloodthirsty killing machines with no remorse, pity, or anything resembling reason or logic – I would probably have enjoyed the movie.


  1. dude, that was a quality article. there are small city papers in philly that would publish reviews like that; i'm sure there's at least one such in KC.

  2. Thinking the same thing, PW. McBastard, use that sucker as a sample somewhere. It's stuck with me since I read it... great stuff.


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