The Descent may be one of my favorite horror movies of all time. It does two things that I am a complete sucker for in movies, the first being a movie that seems to be going one way, and then halfway through completely changes itself and becomes more interesting in the process. The best example I can give of this is Predator (a movie that The Descent parallels a lot), where the movie starts as a rescue mission and war movie but drastically changes in the middle. The second thing I’m a sucker for is flipping movie tropes. The best example I can give of this was Jeepers Creepers, which makes the relationship of the main characters brother and sister, eliminating romance. The Descent has an ensemble cast made of all women, but really concentrates on the relationship between Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), two characters who are (or were) close friends but have an unspoken tension between the two of them.
There is this underlying current of mistrust and suspicion in The Descent that doesn’t just come across through Shauna Macdonald, but also through the performance of Natalie Mendoza as well as some great directing by Neil Marshall. Sarah suspects Juno of having an affair with her husband. It’s never spoken, it’s never brought up directly, but the tension between the two characters is ever present throughout the entire movie. Eventually the women all find themselves trapped in the cave after a collapse of one of the shafts leading out, and the plot unravels as the women try to find a way out. Shauna Macdonald provides that key role as the movie’s anchor as things start to get crazy and crazier, and though we start moving between the ensemble cast, we are always brought back to Sarah. This is still her story despite the craziness. The movie is incredibly claustrophobic, giving credit to Neil Marshall, but also to Shauna Macdonald who, as we recall, does not want to be there. Shauna becomes increasingly more agitated and really mimics the audience reaction. It’s a rollercoaster we want to get off, and as Sarah gets more upset, we get more upset. At some point we just want to leave but can’t. Neither can Sarah.
It’s at this point that I cannot recommend the director’s cut enough. While the theatrical release is still a very good movie, I feel like it short changes the end of a great movie and great performances with a jump scare. The theatrical release cuts in moments of what was going to be her daughter’s birthday party, and builds to the moment where we are unclear of Sarah’s fate as she sits on a rock, surrounded by creatures, visualizing her daughter’s birthday. I haven’t seen much other work from Shauna MacDonald so I don’t know how much credit is to be given to Neil Marshall, but what is on the screen remains one of my favorite performances in one of my favorite movies of all time. Shauna MacDonald takes the audience on an odd character arc not often seen in movies, from being highly likable and relatable to going crazy, from hero to monster in under 100 minutes.