Noteworthy Heroines of Horror is a recurring segment on Wicked Horror where we shine the spotlight on a female character from the annals of horror history that has made a significant contribution to the genre. The characters we select may not be the obvious final girls that regularly grace top ten lists, but their contributions to the genre are meaningful and worthy of note.
It takes a certain kind of brave or crazy to go spelunking in an unmapped cave in the Appalachian Mountains as a “fun time” with your girlfriends. Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent is a rare horror tale that features an all-female cast, who are first trapped in a cave with no known way out, and are then pitted against the carnivorous monsters that lurk in the cave’s depths. All six of these women could easily qualify as aNoteworthy Heroines of Horror (with the possible exception of Juno) but the greatest character arc is given to this week’s pick: Sarah, played by Scottish actress Shauna Macdonald.
Admittedly, when the film begins, Sarah is mentally the weakest of the group. But the opening scenes show the audience that she has very good reason for being skittish and not so much the life of the party–one year earlier, Sarah’s husband and young daughter were killed in a bloody car crash. The once vivacious and adventure-seeking Sarah is now burdened by unbearable grief and survivor’s guilt, having brutal nightmares about how her family died. The audience gets a glimpse of the former Sarah in the first scene, as she is white-water rafting with Juno and Beth, clearly enjoying herself despite the danger. So we know that she has something fierce inside of her that she will need to draw from when the blind, naked flesh-eating monsters show up.
Sarah asks Juno to get the girls together for a weekend of spelunking so that she can try to get her old life back again. Still, she’s hesitant. Earlier bits in The Descent show that she is slightly unsure of herself around the girls, probably wondering how she can be as carefree as them, when Holly’s mere mention of having babies immediately brings up bad memories. She doesn’t give up, though, and goes ahead with the adventure that will soon become a nightmare. Once inside the caves, Sarah is quiet but observant of her surroundings – making little discoveries that give clues of what is to come. In one of the film’s tense moments of claustrophobia, Sarah understandably freaks out when she becomes stuck in a tunnel right before the cave-in. But instead of further weakening Sarah, all of these moments–plus the growing tension with Juno–work toward rebuilding her strength.
Sarah and the girls eventually enter the main lair of the cave monsters and their number goes from six to four. Sarah must watch and listen in horror as three monsters rip apart and devour one of her friends. She happens upon a dying Beth, who reveals Juno’s treachery and the fact that she had an affair with Sarah’s husband Paul. Sarah doesn’t want to leave Beth alone, but Beth begs her to mercy kill her, which Sarah does. Right after, a cave monster attacks and Sarah brutally stomps it to death, and then kills another in the lake of blood. What emerges from that lake is a new, wild-eyed, and determined Sarah who is now ready to do whatever it takes to survive.
Now the only two survivors are Sarah and Juno, who spent most of the film as the strongest and most confident in the group. When Sarah finds her again, Juno is visibly shaken at the sight of the new Sarah, who looks like she wants to kill her right there but doesn’t, probably because she realizes she might need her. And indeed she does. The two come upon an entire room of monsters which they decimate in just a few minutes–using their axes, torches, and fingers to get the job done. When Sarah has her final confrontation with Juno, she doesn’t say a word to her and doesn’t have to–Juno knows what she has done and that she must pay for it. Sarah’s revenge against Juno for both herself and Beth is passive, as she only wounds Juno and leaves her for the cave monsters, and this act could be interpreted two ways. Either she cannot bring herself to actually kill Juno herself, or she wants her to suffer more. At this point in Sarah’s arc, I might have to go with the latter.
A small problem with The Descent is that it has two different endings with two different outcomes. The original ending shows Sarah still trapped in the cave, hallucinating about her daughter with the sound of the cave monsters all around her. The US theatrical ending (which predicates the sequel) has her escaping the cave and driving off to safety, but then a ghostly Juno appears in the car next to her. Either way, Sarah has survived more than anybody should ever have to. The untimely loss of her family and the horrors she witnesses and commits inside the cave first weaken her resolve and strengthen it again. She finds the will to fight, and finds a way to finally live with herself after what she has been through. This makes Sarah from The Descent a very Noteworthy Heroine of Horror.