‘Face your deepest fear’
The Descent is a 2005 British horror feature film written and directed by Neil Marshall (Hellboy; Tales of Halloween; Dog Soldiers) about six women who, having entered an unmapped cave system, become trapped and are hunted by blood-thirsty human hybrids lurking within.
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The film took $57.1 million at the box office against a reported budget of £3.5 million. A sequel, titled The Descent Part 2, was released in 2009.
The skull of women motif used in some advertising material is based on Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors photograph.
The film’s marketing campaign in the UK was disrupted by the London bombings in July 2005. Adverts on London’s transport system (including the bus that had exploded) had included posters that carried the quote, “Outright terror… bold and brilliant”, and depicted a terrified woman screaming in a tunnel.
The film’s distributor in the UK, Pathé, recalled the posters and reworked the campaign to exclude the word “terror” from advertised reviews of The Descent. Pathé also distributed the new versions to TV and radio stations. The distributor’s marketing chief, Anna Butler, said of the new approach, “We changed tack to concentrate on the women involved all standing together and fighting back. That seemed to chime with the prevailing mood of defiance that set in the weekend after the bombs.”
The Descent was released in North America with approximately a minute cut from the end. In the American theatrical cut, Sarah escapes from the cave and sees Juno, but the film does not cut back to the cave.
In the 4 August 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly, it was stated that the ending was trimmed because American viewers did not like its “uber-hopeless finale”. Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen said, “It’s a visceral ride, and by the time you get to the ending you’re drained. [Director Neil] Marshall had a number of endings in mind when he shot the film, so he was open [to making a switch].” Marshall compared the change to the ending of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, saying, “Just because she gets away, does that make it a happy ending?” The North American Unrated DVD includes the original ending.
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A year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter on the drive back from an adventure holiday, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her adventurous girlfriends, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid, Arachnid), Sam (MyAnna Buring, Kill List) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are reunited at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina (admirably portrayed by the wilds of Scotland and Buckinghamshire). Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno’s new friend, is introduced.
Whilst Sarah begins to imagine the time she had with her family just twelve months prior, she is whisked along to a potholing jamboree in a cave-system kept as a surprise by Juno. Alas, no sooner have they begun to explore, than the passageway collapses behind them, shutting them in what, Juno now admits, is a completely unmapped labyrinth of tunnels and caverns. Despite the group’s previous disastrous holiday, no-one thought to inform anyone where they were going.
As the unhappy group progress through the gloom, they find evidence of previous explorers and, more pertinently, cave drawings describing a second exit from the cave, towards which, they hopefully advance. No sooner have they set off than Holly falls and suffers a pleasingly graphic compound fracture of her leg; Sarah applies a splint, though you imagine the entire group is relieved it happened to the most annoying of their number.
Whilst collecting their thoughts, Sarah fleetingly spies a figure in the murk, the others essentially patting her on the head, assuming she’s still suffering mental trauma. Exasperated and frightened, Sarah is proved right as the girls find that indeed they are not alone and something humanoid is hunting them down, like lions in the savannah, attacking the weakest (Holly) and ripping out her throat. In the melee of pickaxes and claws, Juno accidentally plunges her rock climbing equipment into Beth, a fact she is not too happy about but does little to resolve.
Briefly, the group are separated but Juno locates Sam and Rebecca, dispatching another of the ever-increasing number of troglodytes before further casualties are inflicted. She convinces the duo to continue on with her towards the exit, despite Sarah being missing. Fearing for their lives and owing something of a debt of gratitude, they relent.
Meanwhile, Sarah is still alive, slightly more-so than Beth who is more blood than flesh but still manages to inform her friend that not only had Juno done her a mischief but had also been having an affair with Sarah’s dead husband, which she proves by producing a pendant she snatched from the increasingly unpopular ‘friend’. Now in a clouded rage, she mercy-kills Beth and slays a family of the pale creatures en-route to find the others.
Most of the ladies have by now realised the creatures are blind, a result of their evolution underground, though have excellent hearing. This knowledge is ultimately redundant, as the creatures mastery of their domain means that escape is almost impossible, First to demonstrate this are Rebecca and Sam, leaving only Juno and Sarah to fend off their attackers and seek salvation. They’ve come so far but is Sarah in the mood for forgiveness, and even if she is, is there any chance to escape?
After the huge critical and commercial success of Neil Marshall’s debut effort, 2002’s Dog Soldiers, everybody waited expectantly to give him a polite ripple of applause for his follow-up but not to push his luck. Much eating of headwear followed when it was clear that Marshall had at least equalled his efforts and had pushed himself and his team yet further, filming a low-budget horror film with a small cast in a near to pitch-black environment. In fact, no caves were harmed during the making of this movie, the immersive and believable sets being made at Pinewood.
The Descent has, aside from the creatures and a brief appearance by Sarah’s husband, an all female cast, an intentional device but one which is somewhat nailed-on and for the most part, glaring. The film doesn’t suffer as such, the group still has an alpha female, a brash annoyance and a baddie but it’s an unnecessary ‘first’ and not the only example of the film-maker perhaps trying a little too hard, when their storytelling skill and understanding of what it means to be frightened were already sound. The actresses all do a sterling job both emotionally and physically, their rock-climbing exertions regularly being wince-inducing for the audience. Helpfully, they are given different accents, a huge help in distinguishing who’s who in the necessarily dark filming environment.
It’s frustrating to watch a film which feasts on such raw human fears – the dark, being lost, claustrophobia, loneliness, things going bump in the dark – knowing that if every horror film director tapped into such universal emotions, we’d be left with far less chaff. The dark is dealt with bravely and skilfully, the only light being of provided sources, torches, helmets, watch displays and the like. The creatures, known retrospectively as crawlers, are well-devised in many respects, pale and pathetic on one level, possessed of cunning and finely-honed senses on the other.
There are niggling gaps – their excellent hearing makes up for lack of sight but whispering is apparently fine (take heed of the zombies of the Blind Dead series, able to hear even the beating of your heart!) and one might think that a sense of touch would also be similarly keen but their ability to sense the heat of flaming torches and indeed the trapped party’s body-heat is lacking. Curmudgeonly sorts may point to their similarity to Gollum of Tolkien fame.
Though an effective score is provided by David Julyan (The Cabin in the Woods), the traditional musical stingers designed to make the audience jump, are instead easily facilitated by the rasping crawlers appearing out of nowhere.
As is many a film’s wont, despite the presence of the crawlers, the human participants pose at least the equal amount of physical and psychological danger. The film just about stays the sensible side of the 2000’s version of the 80’s trapping of ‘it was all a dream’, fortunate – although it was felt a statement had to be made beyond the basic plight of the cavers, it would be refreshing to have a horror film that didn’t fall back on ulterior factors, as if to suggest just being a horror film wasn’t enough.
The crawlers themselves, humanoid enough to clarify that they have evolved from Earth not from Mars, are the work of Paul Hyett (Howl; The Facility, Eden Lake) and his team, the prosthetics being anatomically sensible but still repulsive, their appearance being hidden from the actresses until filming started, ramping up the tension yet further. The film spawned one, ill-advised, sequel, whilst Marshall has yet to recapture his early vigour and invention on the big screen.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
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” …Marshall delivers what amounts to a feature-length exploitation of viewer phobias — distressingly claustrophobic and shot so vertiginously that it feels as though you’re dangling in the cave with the women. The generously gelatinous gore isn’t without metaphorical purpose either. As the cave gets wormier and wetter, tighter and more terrifying, it feels like a womb thick with amniotic fluid.” Nick Rogers, The Film Yap
“Its no hyperbole to call Neil Marshall’s second feature a masterpiece. It succeeds brilliantly on technical and artistic level and it achieves the basic aim of any horror film. It is as scary as hell.” MJ Simpson, Urban Terrors: New British Horror Cinema 1997 – 2008
” …carefully establishes the psychological relationships among the women, then squanders this calibrated and generally plausible setup with a series of crude, implausible, and scattershot horror effects. The two strains are supposed to merge but mix like oil and water as the narrative grows increasingly incoherent (the fact that so much of it transpires in darkness doesn’t help).
“Marshall could very well be the Caravaggio of the B-movie. Working in complete darkness, he playfully uses the cavers’ equipment as his paintbrush … As for a “deeper meaning,” Marshall covers that, too. What is most haunting about this film is Sarah’s own descent into feral madness. In one close-up, her blue eyes pierce the blood that covers her face, and we realize that she might have transformed into a creature herself.” Sarah Lilleyman, Time
“The watery cavern is as scary as the nasty critters who show up about an hour in. Some of the human complications are not as effective and Marshall overuses one flashback device. Even so, this works well enough.” Mike Mayo, The Horror Show Guide
“One of the scariest films of this or any decade… Ultimately, The Descent is the purest kind of horror film – ruthless, unforgiving, showing no mercy.” Bloody Disgusting
“The claustrophobic setting is intense and the creature effects genuinely disturbing, but the film’s greatness lies in its use of its main character’s raw, red grief as emotional kindling for the catastrophe that follows. Few of even the greatest genre movies dare to go places this deep.” Sean T. Collins, Rolling Stone
Cast and characters:
- Shauna Macdonald as Sarah Carter
- Natalie Mendoza as Juno Kaplan
- Alex Reid as Elizabeth “Beth” O’Brien
- MyAnna Buring as Samantha “Sam” Vernet
- Saskia Mulder as Rebecca Vernet
- Nora-Jane Noone as Holly
- Oliver Milburn as Paul Carter
- Molly Kayll as Jessica Carter