I made the mistake of trying to watch The Descent alone for this piece, and half hour into the film I remembered why it still remains part of a handful of horror films which truly frighten me. To celebrate Neil Marshall’s birthday on the 25th May, I thought I would revisit this film and discuss what makes it just so good.
Neil Marshall’s cave-dwelling horror has a simple premise Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) husband and child die in a car crash, and exactly one year later, she reunites with her gal pals for a fun weekend of caving! However, the cave system they enter turns out to be much ‘darker’ than expected, as they find themselves hounded by strange demons who have adapted to life in the dark. It is a fight to survive, as slowly the women are picked off one by one.
What makes Marshall’s film so effective is its cast, by casting six unknown actresses. He also made sure that his cast had time to bond and according to leading actress Shauna Macdonald “There were two weeks set aside for climbing, whitewater rafting, off road driving and just going out and getting a bit drunk to make sure that we all had an amazing time. It seemed to take an awful long time before we actually got on set. We all managed to get on brilliantly well. Sometimes females we are our own worst enemy, but he managed to get the right group of girls together.”
The film works because it’s portrayal of women as survivors and fighters is so refreshing, as women in horror are often victims. Here the women fight with whatever they have to hand, and things get very violent. The film is interesting because Marshall doesn’t resort to using his call female cast as a gimmick, instead of making references to how they’re all female, he just gets on with the story. And the characters are all well-developed, with their own back stories. The fact that Marshall was filming this in 2005, way before Ghostbusters, Annihilation and Ocean’s 8, shows just ahead of the game, Marshall is as a director.
The film’s effectiveness also lies in the monsters, that look a little like Golem from The Lord of the Rings, but deadlier and with sharper teeth. The actresses weren’t allowed to see the creatures until they arrived on set, which makes their reactions captured on-screen seem somewhat more ”real.” As Shauna Macdonald discusses, “for the whole movie, they kept the crawlers away from us, keeping the actors and the images away. My character sees the crawler first in the film.
It’s the anticipation – we always thought that Marshall was going to put a crawler in just to capture something. We were always so tense. When the five girls saw the crawler for the first time, it popped up behind Beth’s head and the girls absolutely cracked. They shot off the set and ran to the fire exit. It was fight or flight. All this adrenaline and anticipation had been building up for about four weeks and when they finally got to release this they were like, “Arghhhhh!”
Marshall knows how to draw you in and he never lets the rhythm drop for a second, the momentum keeps driving forward, never pausing to let the viewer catch their breath. He manages to maintain a claustrophobic feel which keeps us on edge. The Descent has to be one of the most gory horror movies with realistic violence, and horror that lasts after the end credits have finished.
It’s clear that the film was made by people who love good cinema, and it shows. Some of the scenes are a mixture of beautiful and true horror, for example there is a long sequence where Sarah is climbing upward out of the dark to the light. This is symbolic of a return to consciousness and reality. The film discusses how far we would go as humans to survive, and doesn’t shy away on that. The real monster is the one that lies within us.