THE DESCENT (2005)
One winter during secondary school I had the dubious pleasure of going potholing. As part of a half-term activity week a group of students, myself included, travelled to the Mendip Hills for seven days of adventuring. There was horse-riding, canoeing, rambling, climbing and one special afternoon we were taken caving. So it was a small troupe of cocksure teens were stuffed underground with two instructors, a pile of rope, a climbing harness and a hard hat each. We were all doing fine until it was time to crawl into the “Worm Hole”. This fifty metre long tunnel was about two foot in diameter with a wet, pebbly floor. It looked dark, tight and never ending. “You’ll be fine” our female instructor encouraged, “Just try not to think about how many tons of mountain is above your head”.
We all gave a nervous chuckle and wriggled into the rock tube. As we squirmed our way along the constant chatter between those in front and behind hid the collective feeling that we would all rather be elsewhere. What if someone got stuck, how would we all get out? How secure was the stone ceiling that was mere centimetres from our heads? It was the longest fifty metres of my life. As I unceremoniously slumped out of the far end the wave of relief was accompanied by a single notion; what an excellent setting this would be for a horror film.
Some years later I sat in a London cinema and had to bite my lip from exclaiming how British writer and director Neil Marshall had stolen my idea. Of course, there was no way Marshall could have nabbed my concept unless he had telepathic abilities or also happened to be down that dank cave in early the early nineties. That exact notion of underground claustrophobic fear and crawling into the shadowy unknown was invoked to terrifying effect by Marshall in only his second directorial effort, The Descent (2005).
Neil Marshall had been toying with a movie career for sometime before he arrived at The Descent. Inspired to seek a life in film at the age of eleven by a trip to see Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Marshall began creating basic home movies with the aid of an old Super 8 camera. He graduated from a film studies course at Newcastle Polytechnic and followed this with a career working as a freelance editor. Marshall honed his writing and directing skills over the intervening years but it was not until 2002 that the native Geordie had the opportunity to create his first movie. The resulting film Dog Soldiers (2002) was the first British horror hit since Hellraiser (1987). Following a group of soldiers on a training mission, the troops run into trouble when they are hunted down by a horde of werewolves. For a horror debut it was best out-of-the-blocks movie since Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1983). Its blend of gore and black humour owed a lot to Raimi’s effort, as did Marshall’s ability to achieve quality effects and scares on a tiny budget. Critics and horror fans sat up and took notice; Marshall’s follow up was hotly anticipated.
Opting to ditch the comedy element and aim for straight frights Marshall set about crafting a tale of caving catastrophe and underground monsters. The result more than lived up to the promise of Dog Soldiers. The stories prologue introduces three female friends, Sarah, Beth and Juno, pursing their love of adventure with a morning of white-water rafting. Leaving Beth and Juno to pack away their raft Sarah heads off with her husband and daughter. But a car crash on the drive home kills Sarah’s husband and daughter in graphic fashion. A year later the trio journey to the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina for a weekend of hiking and caving. They are joined by three more friends, sisters Sam and Rebecca and Juno’s fellow thrill seeker Holly. Sarah is still suffering the after affects of her loss but joins the group as they head to a popular system of caves near their remote log cabin accommodation. Juno leads the group but leaves the cave map-book in the car. As the group runs into caving trouble via a rock fall that nearly crushes Sarah, Juno admits that she has led them into an unknown area of caves. As the group search for an exit they realise that they are not the first people to traverse the caves, discovering old caving gear and remains. With Sarah catching glimpses of someone or something following the group, Holly falls down a cave shaft and breaks her leg. As the group tend to her they are attacked by a group of clambering creatures. The group is decimated and the separate survivors struggle to find a way out of the caverns whilst avoiding the vicious “crawlers” that live in the darkness.
Considering that Marshall’s cave setting was so tailor made for inducing frights, it was a wonder the potholing experience had not been exploited before. What may have deterred previous directors was the difficulty in accessing and shooting in a real cave environment. It was a problem Marshall quickly dismissed by choosing to construct all of his caves on a soundstage. Though a potentially tricky construction, it solved the problem of dragging an entire film crew below ground and removed the danger of a cast member disappearing down an actual pothole.
Marshall handled the introductory scenes well, with a nod to The Shining (1980) in a gliding shot over the forests of the Scottish Highlands, which doubled for the Appalachians. Another Raimi tribute in the log cabin exposition scenes and a quick drive to the cave opening (which was a fake entrance, created by a composite shot) and then it was down into the darkness. Marshall had his work cut out for him; the movie would live or die by the believability of its fake polystyrene rock walls.
Fortunately Marshall had assistance from production designer Simon Bowles and director of photography Sam McCurdy. Together they managed to create a series of sets so life-like most viewers would be forgiven for thinking the entire film was shot on location. With the film being shot in sequence the crew were also able to save money by simply redressing most of the cave sets for reuse later on. Combined with the fabulous set was some of the best lighting seen in a horror film since Halloween (1978). Marshall was determined to light every scene only using what the characters themselves had to hand, helmet lights, torches and glow-sticks. It was no easy task but bar a small handful of scenes Marshall achieved his aim. Not only that, when the group of cavers got separated he was able to distinguish their scenes by subtly assigning each of them a colour, the eerie green of a glow-stick following Sam and Rebecca, the blue glow of a torch lighting Juno, and the red hiss of a flare illuminating Sarah.
The resulting combination of authentic set creation and lighting ensured that the first half had tension to spare even before the movie’s villains were revealed. Arguably the most nerve shredding moment in the film sees Sarah wedged in a narrow tunnel, unable to squeeze through. Sarah panics and so do we. It is a simple device that elevates the audience into a state of immediate panic. The deeper the ladies explore the more difficult it will be to escape when the inevitable horrors take hold.
An equally tense ravine crossing, incorporating a small story clue in the form of a rusty climbing clasp, keeps the heart pumping. It was a construction of anxiety rarely seen in modern horror films, especially when The Descent had the likes of Wolf Creek (2005) and Hostel (2005) to contend with, films which were promoting gory excess above subtle scaremongering. In subsequently discussing his movie Marshall mentioned the paranoiac chillers Deliverance (1972) and The Thing (1982) as direct influences. The parallels are justified, and not just in the former’s us-versus-nature set up, paid tribute to throughout the movie (see the “Chatooga” road sign and various Ronny Cox-like twisted arms). That the viewer was so unnerved before the director revealed his underground fiends made the achievement of top notch scare mongering that much easier.
The stories central villains, tagged by the crew as “Crawlers”, divided audiences at the time of the film’s release. Arriving just two years after The Lords of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy some critics labelled the “Crawlers” as Gollum’s more homicidal cousins. While the creatures certainly shared Gollum’s slender elongated limbs and pale complexion that was where the comparisons ended. What Marshall created with his monsters was as realistic a portrayal of underground beings as was possible whilst retaining an element of the exotic and dangerous. When Juno, Sam and Rebecca kill one of the creatures they explore the body, hypothesising that living in the dark for so long caused its eyesight to deteriorate. The beasts hunt on sound alone and have developed exceptional rock climbing abilities. Marshall later explained that this scene was much longer in the script, with the threesome speculating that the creatures might be descendants of cavemen that never made it to the surface. As a supposition of Darwinist theory it strained believability a lot less than most horror creatures. Marshall wisely chose to keep the “Crawlers” in the shadows as much as possible, only revealing them in moments of frantic action and the occasional ultra tense hold-your-breath scene; watch as one “Crawler” crouches over a blood soaked Sarah and drools in her hair.
To ensure that the movie extracted sufficient empathy for the protagonists Marshall made the bold choice, at the time, of an all female cast. The script originally called for a mixture of male and female characters, but with all women the movie ensured that female viewers would have maximum sympathy and male viewers would be on full protective alert. Rather than six melodramatic scream queens Marshall made the characters fully believable and, most importantly, individualised. With dim lighting throughout it was essential that the audience knew who they were looking at, especially when the “Crawler” teeth and claws started to fly. Marshall made his job more difficult by casting six relatively unknown actresses. But the group were introduced in stages, starting with the opening trio river rafting, and then the final three later on in the Appalachian cabin.
Wisely, Marshall chose actresses with different styles, Nora-Jane Noone’s short-haired action junkie, Natalie Mendoza’s frosty leader of far-east descent, Shauna MacDonald’s fragile Scottish blonde. There was also some wonderful character dynamics underplaying the horror, most notably the revelation that Juno had an affair with Sarah’s deceased husband Paul, wonderfully revealed by the “Love Each Day” pendant. It provides an authenticity to the events that anchors the thrills securely. As a modern display of feminism, it is a cinematic wonder. Marshall kept the women fully clad in realistic climbing gear, rather than sports bras and hot-pants. He kept the strong characters commanding without resorting to too much obnoxious, post-nineties “Girl Power”. But most importantly of all he maintained their fragility in this nightmare scenario without the need for histrionics. Witness Juno’s character moving between terrified, remorseful, defiant and calculating. All round the acting on display was pitch perfect, the actresses keeping their vocal chords in check and relying on genuine displays of emotion and personality to convey each scene. It was refreshing to finally see an all female horror cast that could hold their own against the many all male casts that usually inhabited these pictures.
Aurally, David Juylan provided a mournful soundtrack that reached its melancholic peak as the final reveal played out. This final twist (trimmed from the picture’s American release to conclude when Sarah makes it back to the safety of her vehicle and is confronted by a vision of Juno) was the climax the movie deserved. To finish on the formulaic “Final Girl” lives to fight another day finale would have diminished the good work that went before it. Marshall knew how to craft a solid horror ending and the last shot provided the story with a chillingly downbeat coda. It also introduced a variety of different plot readings. At what point did Sarah start hallucinating? Were there “Crawlers” or was it Sarah all along, losing her grip on reality (see the marrying of Sarah’s cry with the screech of a “Crawler” near the film’s conclusion as Marshall cuts back to Juno, Sam and Rebecca) Was Sarah even alive at all, or did she die in the opening car crash, the cave sequence representing her journey into the afterlife? The ambiguity of the ending and its impact on the preceding story made for the perfect final note.
That was until the below par sequel came along to ruin things. Before that, there were more caving exploits to be had. I waited eleven years for a potholing horror film to be released only for three of them to come along at once. Filmed at the same time as The Descent, the American production The Cave (2005) from director Bruce Hunt had a strikingly similar premise. It followed a mixed group of spelunkers and cave divers into a large cave network in Romania. The group run afoul of some previous cavers who were trapped underground many years before, contracting a virus in the intervening years. The virus turned them into winged mutants intent on defending their subterranean home. The idea of the virus escaping the previously hidden lair was an interesting one, and Hunt left the movie on a captivating scene with the infected heroine fleeing into a crowd. But the majority of the film suffered from a clichéd script and a lack of genuine scares. Further underground thrills followed at the end of the year with The Cavern (2005). The title of this Olatunde Osunsanmi movie was changed from WithIN to cash in on the success of The Descent, a blatantly cheap move that tells you all you need to know about this third rate picture. The copycat storyline saw a group of cave photographers stumble upon a crashed aeroplane, the last survivor of which takes exception to their meddling.
The Descent performed well at the box officer, despite coinciding with the 7th July London terror attacks, due in part to the excellent reviews the film received. The movie’s success ensured a sequel; the only problem was where to take the story. Marshall relinquished directorial and writing duties, with Jon Harris hopping behind the camera. Marshall was given a producer credit, and was tasked with over-seeing the movie’s production. Recapturing the movie’s sense of claustrophobia would not be too difficult with the original film providing such an excellent blueprint. The “Crawlers” were also good for another bout of savagery. But without a strong narrative element to tie these fright inducing facets together The Descent Part 2 (2009) fell flat.
Part 2’s story picks up two days after The Descent’s conclusion, revealing that Sarah did indeed escape the cave system. With the police examining Sarah’s fanciful story, they decide to re-enter the caves to look for evidence with a distraught Sarah in tow. The small team enter the caverns through an old mineshaft, which is maintained by the suspicious Ed Oswald. Once inside the group fall victim to the “Crawlers” and try to flee the cave network. Whilst looking for an exit Sarah and new cohort Elen run into Juno who also managed to survive the first film. The trio reach an exit, but a final showdown with the “Crawlers” leaves Elen as a lone escapee. That is until Oswald clonks her over the head with a shovel and drags her back into the cave to become more “Crawler” fodder.
As final twists go it was about as predictable as they come, and far removed from Marshall’s original revelation. The cave scenes were further examples of how to shoot an affective underground sequence, but without the emotional weight of The Descent’s sextet of females the tension dissipated fast. The “Crawlers” also received far too much screen time second time round. Marshall handled them much better, letting the shadows and gloomy cave corners take care of most of the work. By far the worst facet of Part 2 though was the lazy scriptwriting. Where as the original films had smart characters making logical choices, Part 2 fell back on to lazy clichés and the sort of character choices that lead most viewers to scream “what the hell are you doing” a few dozen times before the end credits. Fans and critics were suitably underwhelmed and the part two failed to replicate part one’s box office success.
Marshall moved away from pure horror with his next film, the post-apocalyptic Doomsday (2008) and entered another genre altogether with the historic faux-epic Centurion (2010). Whilst both movies confirmed Marshall’s directorial chops, particularly when it came to a stirring action sequence, they failed to make much of an impact with fans. Whether Marshall will make a return to the genre that provided him with his break in the industry remains to be seen. Mercifully, the poor performance of The Descent Part 2 ensured that the series should be free from further sullying. When a movie strikes so many perfect chords the temptation to revisit and revel in its glory is often irresistible. Films such as The Descent really are one of a kind though and seldom grace cinema screens. I just hope I don't have to subject myself to another agonising crawl down the “Worm Hole” in order to invoke the next British horror masterpiece.
See also The Descent Part 2 (2009)