Collins’ Crypt: On The Two Endings Of THE DESCENT

Seeing the two versions back to back gives BC a newfound appreciation for both.

On Sunday, the Cinefamily here in LA had a screening of Neil Marshall's The Descent, which I've previously drooled over and don't need to do again. Marshall himself came to the screening for a Q&A with hosts Kumail Nanjiani and Wayne Federman (it was the fourth annual installment of the latter's comedian-driven festival; Descent was, I believe, the only horror film in the lineup), and it was presented on a gorgeous 35mm print, possibly the same one I showed to about 25 people a few years back at the New Beverly (this was a sold out show, so I guess my error was not getting Neil Marshall. Or Kumail Nanjiani). This print is, of course, the US version from Lionsgate, so it has the shorter ending, but since Marshall was there and there were a lot of folks who hadn't seen the film before (heathens!), the theater then showed the longer, UK ending of the film off a Blu-ray, allowing Marshall to talk about the history of the two endings after we saw both for ourselves.

(It also gave us a rare chance to see back-to-back presentations of 35mm and Blu-ray, as we got to see the main part of the ending twice. If one person in the house realized how much better it is to see a movie on 35, it would have been worth the effort.)

If you're unfamiliar with what the difference is, they mostly play out the same - the US ending just removes the final 30 seconds or so. Sarah still escapes from the cave, drives away, pulls over and is terrified by a ghost (?) of Juno in her car. The US version goes to credits here, but in the UK one, it cuts to Sarah waking up in the cave, with her escape being nothing more than a dream. She is then pleasantly greeted by the now familiar sight of her daughter with her birthday cake, happy to see her mother. The camera pulls back and we see that Sarah is smiling at nothing (and the lit up cake is actually her torch), and then it keeps going further and further back, at which point we realize our heroine isn't anywhere near an exit and will likely be down there forever. It is, in purely scientific terms, a giant fucking bummer.

Or is it? If you think about it (and Marshall clarified this at the Q&A), the US ending was inadvertently made darker by removing this epilogue and presenting her escape as reality. If she escapes, she's completely traumatized, now all of her friends are dead (she even contributed to two*) in addition to her family, and she's gonna have to answer a lot of questions about the disappearance of five people. At least if she's still trapped in the cave, she's mentally at peace, with her fractured mind believing that her daughter is with her. It's the first time I watched the movie since having a child of my own, and thus the first time I really appreciated how much "happier" this ending is - even if I had proof of my innocence and a few surviving friends, I'd still choose to exist in a world where my son was still with me rather than return to the reality where he wasn't.

But even with this newfound appreciation of the original ending, I still don't necessarily think the US version is bad. I think they should have cut it sooner, in fact - end it with Sarah driving away at full speed, triumphant and stronger for surviving her ordeal, rather than on a (rather weak) jump scare. The Descent has its fair share of jumps throughout the film, but they all have a reason to be there. The two "It's just me!" types pay off when a would-be third results in Juno accidentally driving her pickaxe into Beth's neck (horror movie characters can see this movie as a cautionary tale of why you should never sneak up on your friend). And they also get those expected stings in there for the audience, letting Marshall and his crew have fun with the more subtle ones you wouldn't expect to see in a movie with "Boo!" moments. I, and several people I have talked to, all confess that we saw the movie a few times before noticing a Crawler in a certain shot early on (Sarah shining her light around the cave), and there are other small moments you might not catch unless you happen to be looking at the right spot of the frame. In the modern horror landscape, allowing a scare to go unheralded without a musical sting or something seems almost treasonous, but they got away with it a couple times here. But at the very end, it's not necessary - there's no reason to trick us, no payoff to it.

As I explained in my piece on the film's under-appreciated sequel, they kind of went with both endings for the followup - Sarah got out, but is completely nuts. I wonder how UK audiences took to this idea when they never had any reason to believe that she got out at all, as it might seem like a betrayal to the whole "there is no escape" thing. But it got me thinking - is this the only time a movie with two theatrical endings got a direct sequel? I know a few movies have had alternate endings available on the DVD; Rob Zombie's Halloween, for example, has the cops gun down Michael in the workprint version floating around, but for the proper releases it was always the same version with Laurie shooting Michael. Because that other ending wasn't seen by the world at large, his sequel picks up from the theatrical ending (with Laurie now wandering around town in a daze, something that wouldn't quite work if she hadn't done anything but run to safety with Loomis). You could argue that the UK cut of Descent is the only true ending, but since the sequel only works if she escapes, it sort of insists on Sarah escaping eventually anyway, making the US one closer to "canon" (the daughter hallucinations are also absent from the followup, for what it's worth).

This discrepancy/debate also brings up another point that came up during the Q&A: the idea that there ARE no Crawlers at all, and that the whole thing is in Sarah's mind and she really did kill her friends. It's a fun idea, and Marshall admits to throwing in some curveballs to get people thinking along those lines (such as when Sarah screams and they cut to Juno and the others hearing it - except the one they hear is a Crawler scream), but I can't ever really buy it. For starters, something that huge would have to have more concrete backup in the movie - too many things happen where Sarah isn't even present, so how would you account for those sequences? We'd have to see at least ONE thing playing out in reality (similar to how we realize the candles on the cake are actually her torch in the UK ending) in order for it to work at all. The video camera element also would seem to prove their existence (why would they scream at Sarah standing behind someone?), and the numbers also play a part in the terror - Sarah is one person, so if she went nuts and started attacking them I would think Juno alone would be able to subdue her, let alone four of them (Holly being out of commission due to her leg). But 20 years from now, when the inevitable remake comes along? I'd love if they ran with this idea and backed it up in the film. As nearly everyone has pointed out, the movie is scary enough even before the monsters show up, so it's not like a reveal that there are no monsters and it's just a very messed up woman killing her friends would somehow decrease the terror element.

How about you guys? I know just about everyone prefers the UK ending (any US defenders? Make your case!), but do any of you go with the idea that Sarah actually murdered them all? Or any other crazy theories? I love that a ten-year-old movie about cave monsters can still produce such a dialogue; even if I don't cater to the notion that this belongs next to High Tension at the video store, the idea that someone can change my mind with a well-written defense is fascinating. I've said before that it's my favorite horror film of the '00s; that hasn't changed, and I think that a big part of it is because it inspires so much conversation after a viewing.

*If you count Juno, which the sequel says you shouldn't. But just as people ignore the US ending, some ignore the sequel's existence in its entirety, and in that case, Sarah is as much to blame for Juno's death as the Crawlers.

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