Womb Wounds : The Female as Threat in the Films of Neil Marshall
by Robert JE Simpson
Originally presented at the Crash Cinema Symposium, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford 2006
First published in Crash Cinema Proceedings Vol. 5 (2006)
“How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
Gospel According to St. John 3: 4 (KJV)
In this paper I will be looking at the films of British director Neil Marshall and in particular the role of women within those films as a threatening force. It stems from my personal responses and observations after first seeing Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror film The Descent, and this study concentrates on that film. I will argue that Marshall’s use of the female is as a potential threat to the male and evolves through the course of his first three films as director. The female is exemplified in the mother figure – herself the natural bringer of life, but in Marshall’s films also the bringer of violent death. The mother embodies the themes of life and death that are crucial to Marshall’s work.
Marshall’s first film – Combat – was a short released in 1999. Set within the confines of a pub it depicts a war of the sexes through its utilisation of the sounds of Second World War dog-fight as the dialogue track. His debut feature film Dog Soldiers was released in 2003 to great critical and popular acclaim in the UK. Alongside works like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, it marks something of a revival for the long dormant British horror film, spinning a variation on the werewolf film – playing it out as a siege-scenario between the plucky group of inexperienced soldiers and the dominant werewolf family. Despite the positive response in the UK the film has been denied a theatrical release in the US, instead gaining popularity through dvd and video sales and through the internet [A general US theatrical distribution subsequently followed in August 2006].
The Descent was released in September of 2005 to generally favourable reviews, and a mixed audience reception. Making back its budget costs during the course of the summer in the UK alone1, the film was perhaps ignored in the US and elsewhere, having been overshadowed by the critical mauling and disappointing box office for Columbia’s similarly themed horror film The Cave. Many critics saw The Descent as redressing the balance in his films by moving from the nearly all-male cast of Dog Soldiers to the nearly all-female cast of The Descent – Time Out went as far as to ask Marshall directly “Was your female cast an effort to even things up after the all-male cast of ‘Dog Soldiers’?”2.
Response to The Descent amongst the audience seems to have been either one of “love it” or “loathe it”. Undoubtedly the film taps into many people’s natural fears of enclosed spaces and the primitive fear of the dark – both of which The Descent has in abundance, presenting as it does, the perils of a group of adventurous women cavers as they get lost deep underground and must combat a largely unseen series of monsters for survival. Further, the film does not provide clear answers for the viewer, and there is no real resolution to the situation. Will anyone escape alive? How will they be changed?
The Descent opens in the Scottish highlands – Sarah, Juno and Sarah’s best friend Beth are white water rafting, watched on by Sarah’s husband and daughter. Driving home Sarah talks to her daughter about her upcoming birthday party, and then turns to husband Paul and tells him he seems rather distant. As she does we watch from Jessica’s point of view as the car veers into the path of an oncoming van. They collide, and huge copper pipes slide from the roof of the van through the windshield of the family car. From an aerial view we can see a pool of blood and the pipes through the car – and Paul’s hand visibly twitching in the driver’s seat. Our protagonist is established as Sarah – her husband and daughter have been killed violently in the car crash. [This particular scenario is reminiscent of the trauma at the centre of Kieslowski’s Bleu, a film which shares a similar psychological development of the childless mother coming to terms with her own rebirth – an observation which I am developing outside the context of this paper].
Sarah wakes up in hospital to a vision of her daughter ready to blow out the candles on her birthday cake. As she stumbles into the corridor the lights start switching off behind her, and she starts to run. She collapses in front of Beth who tells her that her daughter didn’t make it. Juno stands at a distance in tears.
One year later and Beth and Sarah are driving through the Appellation Mountains. They meet with a group of four other women in a cabin in the woods, including Juno. Together they set off for a potholing adventure. Arriving at the location Juno leads them down into a great cave system, along a series of narrow tunnels. Crawling along one of these Sarah becomes lodged and starts panicking. Beth comes to her aid and as she pulls her free the tunnel starts to collapse. Once the dust settles it becomes apparent that Juno has led the group to a new uncharted set of caves.
They are forced to descend further and it becomes clear that they are not the first to do so – various traces of previous human encounters can be found through some antique caving gear, and prehistoric cave paintings. As they descend further, they start to panic. One of the group starts to run on ahead, and fooled by the light of phosphorescent rock she falls into another hole and breaks her leg.
After patching her up the group continue only to pause in the midst of a large pile of animal bones. Lighting a flare they discover that there is another creature in their midst – confirming Sarah’s story that she has seen a man in the caves with them. Suddenly the group are attacked by a group of strange humanoid creatures – ‘crawlers’ as they are referred to in the film’s credits. Juno attacks and successfully kills one of the crawlers with her axe, and then accidentally attacks Beth with it – plunging it into her neck. Despite Beth’s appeal to not be left alone, Juno leaves her.
Sarah is trapped in a chamber, watching as the crawler’s tear into a body in front of her. She watches through the infra-red setting on a camcorder as the beasts feed. She eventually finds Beth, whose body has been dumped there by the crawlers – and who tells her not to trust Juno, that Juno had nearly killed her and left. Beth gives Sarah the necklace that she tore from Juno’s neck and Sarah realises that her husband and Juno had been having an affair.
This marks a turning point in Sarah’s development, as she is alerted to the mass deception amongst the group. Her best friend has concealed knowledge of a love affair between Sarah’s late husband and Juno.
Two of the other women – Rebecca and Sam – have meanwhile been hiding, and run into Juno. Examining the body of one of the crawlers they determine that they hunt by sound, like bats, and are blind. Juno tells them that she has found a path out – having traced the markings of a previous expedition party – but refuses to leave without Sarah. As they run through the caves they encounter a crevasse and Rebecca and Sam are quickly dragged off and killed by the crawlers.
Juno and Sarah find each other – Sarah drenched in blood – and on the trail of the markings they soon become surrounded by the crawlers once again. They fight, and then Sarah cripples Juno with an axe, then flees from the cave. She makes her way to the surface, finds their cars and drives off. Only she suddenly wakes up back in the cave.
On first viewing The Descent, I came away with the belief that much of what I had seen was meant to be a dream, possibly from the scenes in the hospital at the start of the film onwards. Repeated viewings of the film have only assured me further that the onscreen events cannot be trusted and the cursory mention of the deceptive double ending that several critics have made is only a small indicator of this problem. Hallucinations and reality are blended together seamlessly, blurring any potential distinction and thus substantially altering any potential reading of the film. I believed that the crawlers did not in fact exist except as a representation of Juno and Sarah’s anger – almost as if they had been spawned by the energy of emotion. It is then only Juno and Sarah who engage in the bloody feud – they are both themselves and the crawlers. Thus the entire film is really about them. The only crawlers are Sarah and Juno.
Certainly there are comments made by supporting characters which might be interpreted as suggesting this. At one stage in the chamber just after the group become trapped Beth asks Juno directly – who is this actually about? The question itself indicated the fundamental dual focus of the film’s emotional state to both Juno and Sarah.
There are a number of instances which support my belief that the violent events are those of a dream which would seem prudent to investigate now. As mentioned previously, when Sarah awakes in the hospital she has just had visions of her daughter’s birthday. Throughout the film Sarah will continue to have these visions, with the sound of her daughter’s laughter and the sight of Jessica and the birthday cake acting as a forerunner of many of the crawler appearances. The sight of her daughter is reminiscent of the deceased daughter in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – an omen of foreboding and danger. However, following her first appearance in the hospital, as Sarah runs down the corridor the lights in the hall go off – only when she encounters Beth, it is clear there are people in both directions and the lights are all on. The film depicts events from Sarah’s perspective – but Sarah is unbalanced and in shock, and remains so throughout the film.
In effect Sarah is suffering from a number of waking dreams, and as we are seeing events from her perspective we cannot tell which are to be believed.
On the walk to the cave mouth Rebecca warns them of the potential problems they will face underground in the caves, and the importance of proper planning for safety. They may suffer from dehydration, disorientation, and hallucinations. Once in the caves Sarah is the first to hear the crawlers and to see them, and it is possible that the crawlers themselves are a group hallucination brought on by disorientation, paranoia and the power of suggestion. Not being able to see clearly they imagine sights and sounds. Only Sarah watching through the infra-red camera setting as the crawlers feed upon her friend would suggest otherwise. However if this is a dream then we cannot trust the perceived documentary reality of the camcorder: are we in fact looking through the eyes of the camera, or the eyes of Sarah looking through the eyes of the camera?
Prior to the crawlers’ first attack Sarah has made contact with Jessica again, but we know Jessica is dead, so we cannot trust the vision of Jessica, or by extension Sarah’s other visions. The dual ending (which is appropriate given the dual personality that Sarah has – her before and after self), is not absolute either, for in the closing scenes, as Sarah supposedly awakens from her dream about escaping, in the cave once again we see Jessica sitting with the cake in front of her. If Jessica is a figment of her imagination – a sort of waking dream – is this second ending also a dream?
The film sets up a number of dualities – exposing the dual nature of most human personalities. Behind nearly every face there is deception and deceit. In Marshall’s earlier film, Dog Soldiers, that deceit is manifest in the nature of the operation that the six-man squad has been sent on. They are not merely out on a routine manoeuvre but rather are there as bait to draw out the werewolves that live in the forest. The very nature of a werewolf is a dual one, traditionally assuming the appearance of a man by day and indistinguishable from anyone else, and by full moon transformed into a wolf-like creature. The wolf in turn represents the more primitive, base animal instincts, returning the sufferer to an instinctive hunter-gather state. The ultimate deceit in Dog Soldiers is the presence of zoologist Megan who brings the squad to a little cottage in the middle of the hunting ground of the wolves. The cottage whilst assuming the identity of shelter, is in fact home for the werewolves and Megan knows this all along – for she too is one of them – Megan is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and is able to infiltrate and tear the squad apart from within.
Juno in The Descent is a liar – she is having an affair with Sarah’s husband Paul and yet assuming the position of a close friend. She pretends to the group that they are on a routine expedition in charted territory, whilst in fact is dragging them into the unknown. She cannot be trusted. The safety of the cave is called into question and reveals itself to be deadly. Sarah’s duality comes in her spiritual journey of rebirth within the cave experience, which I shall explain shortly.
Marshall’s films are all about the duality of life and death – nature in fact, and the need for survival. Dog Soldiers presents us with two groups fighting for their survival – on the one hand the army squad, and on the other the family of werewolves who need protecting from the military attempt to harness them. Whilst the wolves themselves kill the squad, they also spread their condition. The sergeant has his stomach ripped out by the wolves in an attack, but after it is patched up it starts to heal rapidly and he too begins to turn into a werewolf. Like the vampire of horror cinema history, the drawing of blood can spread the infection resulting in a new life, through the death of the old.
Traditionally werewolves had been depicted as almost exclusively male – drawing parallels between man and dog’s aggressive nature, and their predatory nature (particularly with regards to women). The woman is set up in these films as an object of sexual desire, and of a calming influence on the beastly aspect of the male personality. Dog Soldiers is one of only a few werewolf pictures to turn the sexual roles around – following on from the likes of The Howling 2: Your Sister Is a Werewolf and Ginger Snaps. Megan as the young female werewolf is not only the potential killer of man, but sexually the potential provider of pure offspring. Megan’s position as the mother, guardian, and provider of food for the young finds an antecedent in Diana Dors guest appearance in the 1980 Hammer House of Horror episode Children of the Full Moon.
The Descent presents us with a similar relationship between life and death. The crawlers need to survive – and so (like the werewolves of Dog Soldiers) they must kill. Out of the death of some other creature they, and presumably more like them, will be able to live. The film opens with the deaths of two members of Sarah’s immediate family, leaving her in a fragile state. She is a mother without a child. The mother figure is the most important for she is the one who is able to bring life into the world – and to sustain it in her womb, feeding it and protecting it from harm. When threatened she will kill for her child and she embodies the duality of life itself.
The cave itself is also a mother figure – host, guardian and feeder of the crawlers. When threatened by the invasion of the women – who are as foreign bodies to her – she brings them closer to her crawler children, in order to feed them and ensure their survival. The crawlers themselves when shown in close up bear a striking visual resemblance to a foetus – their features are waxy, almost translucent, and lack hair or precise detail. When we see the first of them, it is hunched over, in a foetal posture at the end of a tunnel.
These creatures are primitive – in their evolutionary state. They attack for food, ripping the flesh straight from their victims, in order to survive. In order for Sarah to survive the cave experience she must go through a rebirth and relearning process, returning to a more primitive form, and becoming as one of the crawlers – an adopted child of the mother cave.
Entering through the cave mouth the women make a symbolic journey into the vagina. In the second chamber the inference that they are in a womb-like environment is suggested not only through the shape, but by the reddish light cast by the flares. They journey through the ‘pipes’ is made with extreme difficulty paralleling the difficult progress the foetus must make inside its mother. Once trapped inside the group must learn to regress into the same primitive state as the crawlers, and be at one with the cave. They must revert to the primitive tribal instincts. When faced with the attack both Sarah and Juno fight directly with the crawlers – hacking at the creatures with axes and bone. Juno kills one of the crawlers in the chamber, and then accidentally puts the blade through Beth’s neck – turning against fellow human, and reducing herself to the level of the crawlers. However, it is Sarah that is the only one that actually becomes like the crawlers – for whilst Juno is responsible for the deaths of the group members by luring them into the cave in the first instance, and by her lack of protection for her so-called friends, Sarah is the only one who physically kills not just a crawler but one of her friends. When Beth pleads not to be left to die slowly – something which Juno has already done – Sarah brings a large rock down on her head. This act of primitive recalls the Biblical killing of Abel by his brother Cain in the book of Genesis – the friends are as the brothers, and this first drawing of human blood transgresses established human morality and marks the shift into a new way of being. Sarah and the viewer move from a secure established society with grounded morals, and laws, where everything is known into the unknown – where trust is destroyed, morality is meaningless, laws are redundant and the only certain is self preservation. We cannot be sure if the events are real or the illusion of dream, and that instability is emphasised by the mercy killing of a loved one. The use of the rock as a tool of death – is a throwback to prehistoric man. Later she will use an animal bone to kill an obviously female crawler. She does this in a great lake of animal blood, emerging as a mentally new woman – confident and in control. The killing of the crawler sees her potentially replace it as the female child of the mother cave. The scene is as a baptismal moment, and she comes out reborn – this is the moment I believe that Sarah becomes a child of the cave.
In the first ending Sara leaves Juno to die and heads towards the light, re-emerging freshly born. Her escape from the cave entrance is rather like that of a new-born baby. Head first and through the foliage, emerging slowly and then gasping in the air. Followed by crying. It is the first time Sarah has allowed herself to actually cry during the whole experience – not because she is afraid or relieved, but because she has been born anew.
If the cave represents motherhood and Sara is also a mother (albeit without child), then the cave (and The Descent) represents the fear of men, and the real unseen hidden dangers of a woman and indeed of childbirth.
Marshall’s films – and notably The Descent – tap into patriarchal fears of the unseen power of the female. Woman is adjusted to dealing with internalised pain through the physical acts of menstruation and childbirth. Man is afraid of these because they don’t understand – anything involving bloodletting for them involves pain and suffering –which women do not seem to manifest.
Women’s perceived ability to hide their pain and to conceal their inner strength undermines patriarchal authority and the perceived notion of man as the hunter-gatherer. In these films it is the mother figure whom looks after the family – it is the mother who has the power of life and death.
- -, “Business Data for The Descent”, The Internet Movie Database (accessed 25 February 2006), <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0435625/business>.
- Tilly, Chris, “‘The Descent’ – Neil Marshall Q&A”, Time Out July 8 2005 (accessed 10 March 2006), <http://www.timeout.com/film/news/522.html>.
28 Days Later, Danny Boyle: DNA Films/The Film Council/Figment Films/Canal + (2002)
The Cave, Bruce Hunt: Lakeshore Entertainment/Cinerenta Medienbeteilgungs KG/Screen Gems Inc. (2005)
Combat, Neil Marshall: Northmen Productions (1999)
The Descent, Neil Marshall: Celador Films/Northmen Productions (2005)
Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall: Kismet Entertainment Group/The Noel Gay Motion Picture Company/Victor Film Company/Carousel Picture Company (2002)
Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg: Casey Productions Ltd/British Lion (1973)
Ginger Snaps, John Fawcett: Copper Heart Entertainment/Water Pictures/Motion International/Lions Gate Films/Téléfilm Canada/TVA International/Oddbod Productions Inc./Unapix Entertainment Inc. (2000)
Howling II : Your Sister Is A Werewolf, Philippe Mora: Cinema 86/Euro Film Fund/Granite/Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment (1985)
Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright: Big Talk Productions/Studio Canal/WT2 Productions/Working Title Films (2004)
Trois couleurs: Bleu, Krzyztof Kieslowski: CAB Productions/CED Productions/Eurimages/France 3 Cinéma/MK2 Productions/Zespol Filmowy “Tor” (1993)
Hammer House of Horror: Children of the Full Moon, Tom Clegg: ITV (1980)
©2006, 2018 Robert JE Simpson