Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent’: Humans Are the Scariest Things

 

May 24, 2022

 

By Sven Mikulec

When Dog Soldiers made a bloody splash across the UK back in 2002, this gory action horror film stuffed with respectful homages and a solid amount of black comedy launched a new name onto the filmmaking scene. A 32-year-old directing debutant called Neil Marshall was suddenly a hot prospect—a man who had the chops to revive the British horror scene. An experienced editor and a guy who fell in love with the world of film through the lens of his Super-8 camera and at the back of a theater watching good old Indiana Jones fighting the Nazis got everybody’s attention and prepared the turf for his next horror adventure. The remarkable results of The Descent caught everybody by surprise, but nobody more than the filmmaker himself. Besides winning the British Independent Film Award for Best Director and the Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, The Descent became a box office hit and, more importantly, received incredible acclaim all across the film-appreciating globe.

“Finally, a scary movie with teeth, not just blood and entrails,” Roger Ebert wrote back in the summer of 2006. “A savage and gripping piece of work that jangles your nerves without leaving your brain hanging. And so, for a change, you emerge feeling energized and exhilarated rather than enervated, or merely queasy.” Ebert was far from the only one who saw gold in Marshall’s sophomore feature: The Descent was hailed as a fresh, intelligent and downright terrifying true horror film, which seems to be exactly what the director wanted to do. After Dog Soldiers, a horror with a clear layer of comedy, Marshall set out to shoot a straight horror film. “I very specifically set out to make the scariest movie I could,” Marshall revealed in an interview. “There was malicious intent on my part, I wanted to scare the shit out of people.” After only a couple of minutes of peace and harmony, with a devastating car crash out of nowhere, The Descent takes off and doesn’t let you off the hook until credits start to roll. In other words, mission accomplished.

The story of The Descent revolves around six women having a reunion one year after one of them, Sarah, lost her family in a tragic accident. Her close friend Juno organizes a cave-exploring expedition so they could reconnect, but deliberately chooses an unexplored system of caves. “What did we always say,” she tries to justify herself after shit hits the fan, “if there’s no risk, there can be no gain.” As if the uncontrolled environment isn’t enough of an obstacle, things go much more south when they discover the caves are inhabited by strange-looking creatures with sharp teeth and a penchant for human flesh. With tension rising and the women realizing how perilous their situation really is, their relations get strained and old skeletons come creeping out of their closets. Even though Juno claims she designed the hazardous plan to help Sarah carry on with her life and once again become close with her friends, it becomes clear she’s dealing with her own pain and a powerful sense of guilt.

 

“We’ve all lost something in that crash,” she states at one point rather boldly, considering she’s a few feet away from the woman who lost her entire family that day. In an effort to perhaps get the redemption she craves for, Juno practically seals the group’s fate, putting them helpless on a deadly predator’s turf devoid of all the security and comfort that civilization and society brought us. Outnumbered, underequipped, sitting ducks in pitch black, the girls might as well be left for dead in the middle of the ocean, like that couple in Open Water, just waiting to be overcome by creatures far more accustomed to those circumstances. It’s terrifying to realize we’re not always the dominating species.

The film’s title–and I don’t aim to be punny here (“Punny how?”)–works like a charm on three distinct levels. On the most banal surface, it signifies the central plot point, that of the women exploring an underground cave system. However, the descent can also refer to the protagonist Sarah’s psychological breakdown into madness and savagery over the course of the story. The third possible meaning is perhaps the least obvious. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the creatures are members of the humankind that simply never left the caves, which Marshall efficiently hints at by showing us a series of wall paintings in one of the caves. The six heroines, therefore, descend down the evolutionary scale all the way back to the ancient times when cave-dwelling was our way of life.

What I especially value and see as The Descent’s major virtue is the economical storytelling, both script-wise and in the visual sense. It took Marshall no less than eight drafts to complete the screenplay, but the studious, military-disciplined approach paid off handsomely, as there’s not a word or shot wasted and used without the clear purpose of advancing the story. There’s no unnecessary exposition, no descriptive dialogues explaining what the images had already made clear. Why would we have to hear a character pointing out cave-dwellers are our ancestors when we’re shown a couple of seconds of wall drawings much like those in Lascaux and Altamira? When Sarah finally confronts her treacherous friend, we’re thankfully not patronized with sentences such as “I know what you did” or “how could you, he was my husband”. Her eyes say it all. Even the more or less subtle nods Marshall uses to pay respect to his filmmaking heroes are here because they were specifically chosen to shed light on the story and the psychological state of the characters. To prove my point, I’ll just mention that the women get together for a spelunking expedition in the fictional Chattooga National Park–it’s no coincidence it shares its name with the river where Deliverance was shot.

 
It’s great to see a horror film that doesn’t degrade itself with cardboard cutouts of female characters. The central protagonists of Sarah and Juno are developed with insight and care, which means that we get people made of flesh, blood and brains. This makes it easier for us to connect, sympathize and become absorbed in the narrative. Marshall knew exactly what he was doing. “As a member of the audience, I’ve always liked seeing strong women represented in movies. It’s not about the strength of the body, but about strength of mind and will,” he explains in another interview. “I’ve had my fair share of creative squabbles with the powers-that-be over the integrity of my female characters. By way of example, one such difference of opinion revolved around whether my entire female cast (you can probably guess the film) should randomly strip off and go for a swim at a particularly unwise moment in the story. The producers wanted this in the movie. I argued that it made no sense for the characters, the story or the film, and in the end they backed down. It’s notable that during the making of Centurion when all the male cast members were required to jump into a river, nobody suggested they should all get naked first.” In the hands of a lesser filmmaker more willing to compromise his vision for cheap popularity points, we might have gotten a lot less of Ellen Ripley and a lot more of logically impaired shots of naked breasts.

Very interesting is the fact that the first creature appears somewhere around the 53rd minute of the film. That’s not to say we’re bereft of chills in the opening hour, quite the contrary: the scariest scene for me doesn’t even contain blood, gore and the creature’s razor-sharp teeth. All Marshall needed to convey dread was a narrow opening connecting two caves and a good actress to fill the void. “I thought maybe three out of ten people suffered from claustrophobia and they would have a really hard time with it,” he commented. “What I discovered is that it’s more like nine out of ten. More people are afraid of the claustrophobia in that film than the monsters. It’s trying to find those core fundamental fears and tap into those, the things that people feel or understand and can relate to directly.”

 
Shot by director of photography Sam McCurdy, BSC in a cave complex built specifically for the film’s needs and lit exclusively by objects the characters brought to the caves (candles, flares, glow sticks), The Descent looks gorgeous. The carefully designed geography of the caves enables Marshall to tell his story with precision and efficiency, but the setting wasn’t the only thing developed with meticulous attention. The creatures were designed by Paul Hyett, a makeup and prosthetics expert, based on Marshall’s detailed specifications, as he was trying to create horrifying yet believable cave-dwellers. He insisted on creating not only male crawlers, but mothers and children as well. “It is a colony and I thought that was far more believable than making them the classic monsters. If they had been all-male, it would have made no sense, so I wanted to create a more realistic context for them. I wanted to have this very feral, very primal species living underground, but I wanted to make them human. I didn’t want to make them aliens because humans are the scariest things.” To make the actresses’ reaction and portrayal of dread more convincing, he even made sure they didn’t see the fully prepared crawlers until the creatures had their first on-screen appearance. Natalie Mendoza, who played Juno, later confessed she “nearly wet her pants” and was later “never really comfortable with them”.

The Descent premiered in the UK right after the tragic London bombings of 2005, an infamous coincidence that somewhat damaged its opening weeks in theaters. “Nobody wanted to see a film about people trapped underground,” Marshall explains. Production was rushed partly because the crew wanted The Descent out before the premiere of an American action horror film The Cave. It turned out these were two completely different films, and the fact you probably have to google the American flick basically says enough. Regarding the American market, The Descent premiered at Sundance the following year, but it’s interesting to note an alternate version of the film was presented to the American public, with the end somewhat softened up. Despite the rocky start in cinemas, word-of-mouth advertising pushed The Descent to becoming one of the most profitable films of the year.

 
Edited by Jon Harris, who would later edit films like StardustThe Woman in BlackT2 Trainspotting and 127 Hours, as well as direct the sequel to The Descent that Marshall called unwarranted, with David Julyan’s music and starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring and Nora-Jane Noone, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is easily one of our favorite contemporary horror films. Filmed by a director who understands everything about visual storytelling based on a very tight script that wastes no one’s time, it’s still as original, fresh and unnerving as it was seventeen years ago.

Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »

 

A priceless gem for all aspiring screenwriters. Read, learn, absorb: Neil Marshall’s screenplay for The Descent [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only.) The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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NEIL MARSHALL—SCREENANARCHY INTERVIEW

A great talk with the filmmaker conducted by Michael Guillén from ScreenAnarchy, as the two of them discuss the conception of The Descent, the influences lurking underneath its surface, the development of the “crawlers” design and more.

I have to start at the beginning, Neil, and flat out ask you where did this story come from?
Looking back at Dog Soldiers, I thought it wasn’t particularly scary. It came out as a black comedy more than anything else. I still had this fundamental need in me to make a horror film that genuinely terrified people. In the same way that I was genuinely terrified by the likes of Deliverance or Alien or The Shining, all those films from the ’70s that I grew up with and have haunted me ever since. There was also a need to make a horror film that took itself seriously, that played it straight. So the story emerged from that desire really.

The reason I ask is I was a student of the late mythographer Joseph Campbell who used to speak a lot about mythic descent motifs so I was wondering if you had any mythic precedents to the story?
No. Well, not consciously anyway. The main story that I wanted to tell was about one specific character’s descent into savagery and madness and insanity and the rest of it followed on from there.

It was interesting that you played with the multiple meanings of “descent”, not only the physical descent into the cave, but the spiraling psychological descent into madness of one of the main characters Sarah (Shauna MacDonald). Were you also playing with the idea of lineage? I got the sense that these “crawlers” were horrific ancestors of ours?
Absolutely. That’s totally what they’re supposed to be. They’re the ancestors of the human race; an offshoot or splinter group of the human race. When we were all cave men, we left the cave and evolved and they stayed in the cave and they went the other way.

 
I’m glad to hear I was correct in that perception. Your script is so tight that I didn’t think there was any reason for something to be there that didn’t have any importance. The scene where they discovered the cave paintings is what brought that alternate meaning of “descent” to mind.
In the first cut of the film there was a very brief scene later on where one of the characters tries to guess what these creatures might be and suggests this whole theory. I thought, “Naw, just leave it ambiguous.” The clues are there—like the cave paintings—the clues are there for people to figure out.

You’re characteristically attentive to the importance of dialogue and character in your films, and in The Descent particularly the script is tightly developed. It’s my understanding you spent over two years working on the script with producer Christian Colson and went through 10-15 drafts until you felt ready to film?
It wasn’t so many as 15, it was about 8, but we did take the time over it because we were determined to get it right. One of the things that happened quite early on—I think it was in the first or second draft—we had the physical journey of the film sorted out, the cave description and the journey we were going to make, the geography of the cave. It was from that basis that we then proceeded to develop the characters, to make the characters as real and as genuine and as 3-dimensional as possible.

They were sound complex portraits of women, unlike the usual caricatures of women in horror films.
I think as a couple of guys it was really important to us to get it as accurate as possible and not make it condescending to women or derogatory in any way. It had to be authentic. These were strong-willed independent contemporary women that we were trying to depict. We had to get it right. I, personally, as the writer, consulted a lot of women that I know just to get their feedback on it. Hopefully, it paid off. I’m very happy with the result. Also, when I was filming it, I was working with the actresses a lot along the way.

How did you end up finding the actresses? What process did you go through for that?
We did a very thorough casting. In some cases—like the character of Holly played by Nora-Jane Noone—I’d seen her work in Magdalen Sisters and I just thought she was a really strong amazing actress. Once I met her, I just cast her immediately, we didn’t bother reading anyone else for that role. Whereas some of the other characters, like Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Sarah, they were the last to get cast because we met so many people and it was really important to get the absolutely right one for that part. Shauna MacDonald fought tooth and nail to get the part [of Sarah] and totally deserved it. She really brought something to it, which is both the gentle nature of the character at the beginning that’s in direct contrast with the absolute insanity and lunacy of the character at the end. What a transformation she made throughout that film!

 

That’s what caused me to ask about the possible mythic underpinnings of your story. What I was thinking about was the original descent myth of Inanna going into the underworld and fighting with her sister, the Death Queen of the Underworld. One of the premises is that, in order for Inanna to return above ground, she has to become like her sister, as death-dealing as her sister. I felt that with this movie. Sarah had to become as brutal as the “crawlers” in order to get out of that cave.
Absolutely, she had to become as primal, and as savage as the “crawlers”, and I loved the idea. When she’s standing there with the fire in one hand and the bone in the other, I just thought, “That’s symbolic of her journey.” She’s almost becoming one of the “crawlers” in a way.

I grew up being scared by Britain’s Hammer Studio Films. There now appears to be a resurgence of the British film industry, horror in particular. What’s your sense of that? You clearly enjoy scaring the pants off people, is this a genre you hope to remain within?
At the moment I want to take a break from it for a little while. I feel like I’ve kind of left myself nowhere to go at the moment. I’ve achieved two things that I wanted to achieve with the horror film. I made a black comedy horror movie which is kind of like some films I really loved when I was growing up, the Evil Dead 2 and the Pete Jackson movies and things like that. And then I’ve gone and done this straight horror movie which again is an homage to the other films I love as horror movies, The Shining, Alien, The Thing and Deliverance. Now I want to tell some different genre stories, I want to explore some new territory, and then come back to horror with a vengeance next year or the year after. I have too many stories to tell and they’re not all horror. But I love the genre so much that I’m not going to desert it.

Well, you have certainly revitalized it. I have to be honest and say that I was screaming like a girl in this movie.
(Chuckles.) That’s a fantastic thing for you to say because that’s absolutely what I intended to do. I wanted people to be quivering wrecks by the end of the film. Either you go into it thinking, “Well, I’ve got an idea of how that might happen”, but you never know if it’s actually going to work or not. To find out that it has worked and that people are responding to it that way is the ultimate reward for a horror director. It’s fantastic. I love that.

 

Do you link your horror film into the recent trend of “survival horror” or “torture horror”—Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek, etc—did you have any of that in mind?
Not deliberately, no. I mean I guess “survival horror” because that’s a term that’s been around for years. If you want to categorize it, The Descent would be a “survival horror” film, I suppose. This “torture horror” thing is a recent development. When the film was made and released in the UK, I’d never even heard the term “torture horror”. I think it’s only this year that it’s really been talked about that much, probably specifically with Hostel more than anything. So, no, that was never a deliberate thought in my mind.

The Descent has been released theatrically with two different endings; the American release being slightly shorter than the British. What necessitated the alternate ending? Is it much different from the original?
It is shorter and it is very different. It puts a whole new light on the film in a way. It has a real big impact on the end of the film. So it’s worth tracking down just to see what you think. But you have to see it in context, you have to watch the whole film to understand it. The reason for the change came because I toyed with the alternative ending in the UK in the edit but we decided to go with the longer version, the descriptive version and our original vision. I’m glad that I did that. It was fantastic. It’s an ending that I really love. But when it was released, it split audiences down the middle. Some people loved it, some people hated it. Given almost a second chance with its release in the U.S., I thought, “Well, let’s just try the other ending.” We had nothing to lose in a way because the original ending already exists and is already out there so we just thought, “Let’s try this” and Lionsgate was keen to go with it.

That’s a rare opportunity to have both endings out there like that.
It is. At the end of the day it’s the dvd age and I’m sure the original ending will turn up on the dvd. It’s not like no one’s going to get to see it if they want it.

The pacing of the film—it’s my understanding that the actresses were never allowed to see the “crawlers” until they were actually filmed with them? There’s an exquisite slow burn and buildup of suspense. In fact, The Descent is like three different horror films. First, there’s the horrible car accident and the shocks associated with that. Then the claustrophobic feel in the cave. Then the full-out rampage of the “crawlers”.
Absolutely. It was deliberately a three-act concept of introducing the characters and getting them into the cave. Then spend the second act just exploring the horror of the cave and caving itself, the claustrophobia and all these other elements. Just milk that for all it’s worth, milk it for all the tension that we can get out of it, and just when you think things can’t get any worse; let’s make them worse. [Laughs.] Let’s just take it even further down the descent. It was fun to do that. That was entirely deliberate.

 

How were the “crawlers” designed? Were they an image that you had in your mind or did that come up through Paul Hyett doing the prosthetics for you?
The actual construction of them and, I suppose, the physical design of them had a lot to do with Paul Hyett and his sculptors that he used. I basically took them the science behind the creatures. I said, “They’re humans but they’ve evolved underground. They live in the pitch black so they’re blind. They use their hearing to hunt. They use this kind of sonar like bats. They’re going to be pretty rough and ready but they’re also going to be pallid, the pigmentation of their skin’s going to be gone because they never see sunlight.” I put all this stuff to Paul and I also said, “I have these guys [Craig Conway and Les Simpson] I want to use as the crawlers who are really physical, theatrical actors.” And he applied all his thinking to that and came up with the designs that we have. We had a whole row of heads—what I call head designs—I just went along and said, “We’ll have that one, that one, that one and that one.” It was great from then on. That was it.

They’re terrifying. Towards the final scenes Sarah is drenched in blood and she reminded me of Carrie. Was that intentional? Or do blonde-haired women always look like that when they’re drenched in blood?
I think blonde-haired women are bound to look like Carrie when they’re drenched in blood. I was well aware of the obvious comparison but it was like, “What am I going to do about it?” I’m not going to deny that it’s there; it’s just there. I love Carrie. I think it’s another one of the great horror films. This film is loaded—much like Dog Soldiers is loaded—with visual references to other films that people will either get or they won’t. A whole new generation of kids who are going to see this film will never have seen Carrie. It doesn’t matter a drop to them. They’re just going to take it at face value. Which is fine but there’s people like me out there who are movie geeks and we like to see that kind of stuff. Sarah’s head coming out of the water is like Apocalypse Now. There’s various other things along the way. Dog Soldiers is full of references to westerns and war movies and all sorts of things that no one will ever get except me. [Laughs.]

Will there be a sequel to Dog Soldiers?
I don’t know. There’s rumors of it. I’m not going to have anything to do with it myself.

Finally, I understand your next project is going to be Doomsday, due out next year? Can you say anything about it? Has it been cast at all?
I’m casting as soon as I get back to the U.K. but, it’s all very exciting, we’re going to start filming toward Christmas and, yeah, it should be fun.

Well, Neil, I thank you very much for your time. I love The Descent, I’ve seen it twice already and I’ll be seeing it again. Thank you very much and congratulations.
Cheers.

 

A nice little video showing the effort that production designer Simon Bowles put into bringing Neil Marshall’s vision to life.

 

SAM MCCURDY, BSC

Sam McCurdy, BSC is a British cinematographer with decades of top-level experience. He started in the business and honed his craft by studying art, finishing a fine art degree in photography and then steadily climbed the trainee-director of photography ladder. A good friend of Neil Marshall’s, he worked with the filmmaker on Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday and Centurion, at the same time establishing himself as one of the best in the business. He shot, for instance, the esteemed Blackwater episode of Game of Thrones, directed by Neil Marshall.

An interesting interview with Sam McCurdy, BSC for the leading digital filmmaking news, reviews and community platform CineD, as the director of photography shares his thoughts on what you need to have to be a quality cinematographer.

 

A fantastic article from the Den of Geek on how The Descent approached its characters.

“Neil Marshall’s horror film The Descent stands as something of an anomaly for aficionados of both feminist and horror cinema. In a genre often populated with overtly sexual female protagonists who are, as The Cabin in the Woods ironically points out, either killed off first (but not before we are privy to a little tits and ass) or maternal figures—think The Ring, Mama, The Exorcist, and most recently The Babadook—the women we see in horror films are often polarized opposites. They are either the virgin mother or the whore. Yet, Marshall’s cult classic rejects these pop culture stereotypes and imbues his heroines with biceps, bravery, and a finely tuned bullshit detector. (…)

The Descent passes the Bechdel-test, and after the first 10 minutes of the film, we never see a male character again because we don’t need to. Female audiences don’t require Tom Hardy swooping in as our hero. Instead, we want to see reflections, variations, and gradations of ourselves. While it’s somewhat surprising that, 10 years later, Marshall’s film still feels startlingly fresh due to its all female cast, one can only hope that directors and producers increasingly capitalize on women to watch out for—in all their shapes, sizes, and kick-ass glory.”—The Descent Redefined Women in Horror Movies

 

 

An interesting scientific analysis and explanation of the origin and nature of the terrifying cave-dwelling creatures of The Descent.

 

FSR: 21 THINGS WE LEARNED FROM ‘THE DESCENT’ COMMENTARY

From referencing Deliverance, The Shining, Apocalypse Now, Carrie and much more, through the difficult logistics of shooting in a single-room cabin, to the genius decision to withhold the creature design from the actresses until their first on-screen encounter. This article is worth checking out!

 

Neil Marshall explains the idea behind the alternative ending and why he pushed for the bleak conclusion to the story.

 

‘THE DESCENT’: THE LAST GREAT HORROR FILM

“I do believe that there is such a thing as scary and not scary, and I don’t necessarily believe that it is subjective. I am certainly not a cognitivist, and I do make room for cultural specificity and historical relativism. For instance, films that were scary to audiences in the 1920s, like Nosferatu, aren’t necessarily scary to audiences today. Having said that, I do think that The Descent is a truly scary film, and I do believe that if one thinks while watching The Descent that they are not scared by the film, then one does not know how to be affected by cinematic horror. At the very least, even if one isn’t scared by The Descent per se, one should be able to understand why a film like The Descent is successful horror. Just as there is more to a comedy than making a person laugh, there is more to a horror than making a person scream.”—The Descent: The Last Great Horror Film

 

A collection of scenes that didn’t make the final cut.

 

Here’s a collection of behind-the-scenes and publicity stills from Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Photographed by Amelia Troubridge © Celador Films, Northmen Productions, Pathe UK. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 

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