Dungeons Deep And Caverns Old – Revisiting Neil Marshall’s The Descent

Sixteen years later, the film remains as powerful as the day it was released.

By Rich Johnson · April 30, 2021, 12:04 PM PDT
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Neil Marshall's THE DESCENT (2005).

Remember the last time you entered a cave? Damp, horrible places that smell of piss. If you’re lucky, there was the school trip where they turned it into a guided tour and the only scary thing down there was the WWII gas mask. Potholing on the other hand; I can imagine that’s fucking terrifying. I know, because I’ve seen Neil Marshall’s The Descent… more than once.

Despite set in North America, Neil Marshall’s 2005 (2006, US) adventure horror is very much a British film where European folklore and ancient mythology lurk under its surface. As an exploration of grief and trauma – primed by Post 9/11 anxieties – for the most part, the horror of The Descent remains primal with brief moments of psychological terror. This is not a serial killer’s motel or the epic vista of the Western you would expect from a US setting. Even the wilderness is brushed through in haste to reach what is about to swallow six women whole. Marshall’s environment is predominantly about working with location and the economy of British filmmaking where (hate to spoil the illusion) the Scottish Highlands stand in for the Appalachian Mountains. And it works. This is primarily a film that sets out to bury our characters; not the familiar descent of man but the descent of woman; both literally and metaphorically.

The plot is simple. A year after the death of her husband and daughter in a tragic car accident, Sarah reunites with a group of her friends for their annual expedition where Juno – the brash American lead – takes them on a caving trip. When they lose part of their equipment and become trapped, deep underground; seeking their way out is the least of their problems as they find themselves hunted by subterranean creatures.

Released during the first decade of the 21st century, The Descent is genuinely one of the best British horror films of all time and was a prime example of when the British film industry’s output showcased some genuine attempts to explore more challenging material and embrace genre filmmaking. During this time, amongst kinky boots and king’s speeches, filmmakers were more and more pushing against the safety of historical drama and working-class commentary. This drive for creative ideas and finding a more international audience was mainly down to the formation of the UK Film Council in 2000, along with funding via BBC Films and Film 4 while also striking distribution deals with major American studios. 

The Labour Government’s broader ambitions for the creative industries helped define the decade as ‘an engine of economic growth’ and with the increasingly significant influence of digital technology on film production, this major step towards pushing the barriers of how “film” was to be perceived was tested to its limits. Despite these major forces being at odds with each other – making life particularly uncomfortable for the policymakers – there was no doubt that the noughties saw a major shift in not just how British film was perceived but the industry as a whole. Although the UK Film Council distributed more than £160m of lottery money to over 900 films, it was announced by the new coalition government in July 2010 that it would be abolished, and eight months later was closed with many of its functions passing to the British Film Institute. This signaled the end of a 10-year run of filmmaking that had become such an integral part of British cinema.

During this period, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was perhaps the most significant horror film and remains so to this day. Not only was it one of the first films to take advantage of filming with digital cameras but also reinvigorating the zombie sub-genre on a modest 5 million budget. The ferocity of the zombies, the feral nature and use of DV footage is also incorporated into The Descent with horrific effect – all on an even tighter 3.5 million – remarkable for what is achieved onscreen. The film is lifted all the more by David Julyan’s rousing score; standing on its own but is never afraid to pay homage; Morricone’s main theme for John Carpenter’s The Thing an obvious riff. Marshall’s use of Easter eggs is littered throughout The Descent (he can’t help himself) – with heavy homage more than transparent in his first three films – thank you letters to Cameron, Carpenter and Miller. Yet, it’s his British slant that helps maintain a fresh take on familiar territory where, above or below ground, Marshall always seems up for the challenge.

Much like the trials of any filmmaker; descending into an underworld is a test and more than often it is against both the environment and the creatures that dwell there. By nature, trolls, troglodytes and any other form of cave dweller are a dehumanized or devolved concept. The imagery conjured from these catacombs evokes a fearful place that connects us all to our primordial nature – our ancestry and origins – a place we constantly return to that often sparks an internal, latent memory; revealing secret passageways to the netherworld that hide unseen forces or imprison our fair maidens. Psychologists have often interpreted the cave as dreamers searching a “maternal unconsciousness” with entry into the cave signifying the re-entry of the womb or of mother earth. The cave is where we are from yet it instils a fear of being trapped, sometimes by unseen forces. What must have been a “hollow" safe place of our ancestors has become a place of deep-rooted fear. What is interesting is how all of the central characters of The Descent are female and only reaffirms this maternal connection to the cave.

The creatures of The Descent – or “crawlers” as referred to by the production crew – resemble the bastard children of Gollum and Nosferatu. They are a primal and feral colony that has (we would assume) evolved from cavemen trapped deep underground. Their skin is mottled with dirt and slime closer to a pale amphibian, while their blind malformed eyes push back into their stunted features. They don’t represent the class divide of H. G. Wells’ Morlocks or any literal ignorance – for that we look no further than Christopher Smith’s Creep (released the same year) that also bears more than a close resemblance to the 1972 cannibal classic, Raw Meat. The crawlers go beyond the primordial and are far more beast than man, a Darwinian sketch rather than a Wellian concept. Created by special makeup effects designer, Paul Hyett’s origin of these species is just as much about their movement as they scuttle and crawl around at lightning speed, guarding their kill with incredible ferocity. There is something about their appearance and the way they move that evoke silent cinema, but also the obvious nods to both Alien and Predator in the way they are framed and move blindly over and around their potential prey. The slow reveals and unbearable tension that builds is expertly handled; all of which leads up to the first attack that comes almost an hour into the film.

Marshall utilizes the very nature of cave exploration and potholing as an unnerving experience in itself capturing the panic and claustrophobia anyone would face in that situation. A crucial scene in particular sees Sarah stuck in the confines of a tight narrow tunnel as she panics and struggles to breathe. When her friend, Beth, attempts to coach her out, panic now hits the both of them as the tunnel begins to collapse. They barely make it through and realize that the majority of rope and equipment is lost. Their umbilical, their lifeline severed.

All of these moments happen before we witness any other sign of life in the darkness. Sarah’s fragility and the visions of her daughter makes her the perfect character to be questioned. There are few horrors without female hysteria and often aids in building on paranoia where hysterical females “see things” the rest of the group have not, adding to the conflict and drama. Much like Sarah’s search through the darkness, what is revealed is drip-fed via the dank atmosphere; the bloody scratch marks, animal bones and 100-year-old equipment left behind. Clicking and hissing can be detected and as we stare into the darkness the formation of stalagmites and stalactites play further tricks on us. Most importantly, as we are distracted or focus on the sounds and forms in the dark, the jump scares remain natural – there are no gimmicks here – and when the first reveal of a crawler hits us, not even the red herrings have dulled the experience. We are primed and ready for the slaughter.

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At the centre of this horror are the women, perhaps most symbolically realized through the film’s marketing campaign. Based on In Voluptas Mors (Voluptuous Death) – Salvador Dalí’s collaboration with American portrait photographer Philippe Halsman in 1951 – the main poster depicts the six characters of The Descent arranged in the shape of a skull with Sarah most prominent. The original’s use of seven nude women that captured both Halsman’s stunning psychological portraiture and Dali-esque surrealism is a clear portrayal of death while, ultimately in context to the film, now shows an element of protection and maternal instinct to support each other. In the words of Saul Bass himself, the poster perfectly “symbolizes and summarizes” the core elements of the film.

However, despite such strong use of female image and symbolism, the film’s casting of women was not as originally intended and, as with most iconic heroines, some parts were originally written for men. In looking at the horror genre, Marshall and producers realized that there were few horror films led entirely by females and aimed for a more “all girl” than final girl approach. Although the cast is predominately made up of women, Marshall still retains a mix of origin. From a couple of English to Irish, Scottish, Dutch, Swedish and an Australian playing an American. There is nothing contrived at all in the casting as the story’s use of extreme sports feels a natural platform for a group of characters to have met, as a common interest, along their travels. After his alpha male debut, Dog Soldiers, The Descent’s cast provides a group that would show, through their actions, “how they feel” about the situation at hand and, as mentioned, naturally become a more supportive group. Throw into the mix some drama between Sarah and Juno and how these women “feel” about each other now becomes a major twist in the story.

It is interesting to see that with a male presence removed the matriarchal struggle is set against a horde of male monsters. These characters are resourceful and resilient based on the skills they have picked up on their excursions over the years and they never rely on a man. In fact, Sarah’s husband (Spoiler alert!) is the only human male figure and a flawed one at that; the weight of his guilt over an affair with Juno that leads to his death and the death of their daughter. This relationship is seeded early on and exposes Juno’s own flaw as a character. She may be brave on the interior and show a gung-ho American heroism in her search for adventure but through her own personal choices she is both selfish and reckless and she will go to any lengths to cover her tracks. Juno is constantly trying to "get back to what it used to be” in an effort to claim the space of the cave like an alpha female. She takes charge and overcompensates for her weakness, lashing out against the creatures and accidentally killing Sarah’s closest friend, Beth. The guilt that already eats away at her inside is now made all the worse.

What becomes matriarch vs. patriarch flips to the struggles between two women. When Sarah finds Beth, left for dead she is forced to end her life. Here, Sarah’s vulnerability is left behind where her grief now turns into vengeance. Sarah first kills what appears to be the only female crawler and then mortally wounds Juno, leaving her for dead as the colony of crawlers close in on her.

The Descent is a film about extreme women in extreme circumstances with zero tokenism. What elevates it above most horror and feminist attitudes is its natural form of storytelling and the actions of the characters. Through Sarah’s descent we watch a woman deal with her grief, trauma and anger in a visceral and bloody manner. She’s in Hell, after all, and she will remain there… depending on which ending (UK or US?) you prefer.