The Descent is a 2005 British horror film written and directed by Neil Marshall. The film follows six women who, having entered an unmapped cave system, become trapped and are hunted by troglofaunal flesh-eating humanoids.
Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Beth (Alex Reid) are whitewater rafting in Scotland. Sarah's husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) wave and cheer from the bank. Juno is seen talking intimately with Paul by Beth. On the drive back to their hotel, Paul is distracted, causing a collision. Paul and Jessica are killed, but Sarah survives.
One year later, Juno, Sarah, Beth, Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are reunited at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, USA. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno's new friend, is introduced. As they reminisce over an old photo of Juno, Sarah, and Beth, Sarah says "Love each day", explaining that it was a saying of her late husband's.
The next morning the group goes spelunking. When the group breaks for lunch in a huge gallery, Juno tearfully apologizes to Sarah for not being there for her after the accident, but Sarah is distant. As the group moves through the next passage it collapses behind them, with Sarah barely making it through. After a heated discussion, Juno admits that she has led them into an unknown cave system, instead of the fully explored cave system they planned for. The only people who were told about their expedition think they are at the other cave system, making rescue impossible. They are trapped with no way out. Privately, Juno explains to Sarah that she led them into the unknown cave hoping to restore their relationship, but Sarah rebuffs her. The group discovers a cave painting and climbing equipment from a previous visitor, suggesting a second exit exists. Juno keeps the latter secret, allowing for the group to remain hopeful.
Holly falls down a hole and breaks her leg. Sam sets Holly's fracture with a splint and they carry her. As the others help Holly, Sarah wanders off and observes a pale, humanoid creature drinking at a pool. It scampers off into the darkness when Sarah gasps. The others think Sarah imagined it, but Sarah insists that she saw someone. Soon after they are attacked by one of the creatures. The group scatter, and the crawler rips Holly's throat. Sarah trips and falls and passes out. Seeing Holly is still alive (barely), Juno tries to defend her from the crawlers, but upon hearing a figure coming behind her, she spins around and stabs it through the neck with a pickaxe, assuming that it is a crawler. However, it was actually just Beth. Beth grabs Juno's pendant as she drops to the ground, but Juno stumbles away in shock as Beth reaches out to her. Juno eventually locates Sam and Rebecca and rescues them from a crawler. Juno tells them she may have found a way out, but will not leave without Sarah. The others reluctantly agree to help her search. Meanwhile, Sarah awakens and encounters the mortally wounded Beth, who tells Sarah that Juno wounded her and left her. Sarah does not believe her until Beth gives her Juno's pendant, which Sarah finds out to have the words "love each day" inscribed on it – revealing that Juno had an affair with Sarah's husband. Beth, in extreme pain, asks Sarah to euthanize her, and Sarah reluctantly complies, smashing her head with a rock. Sarah soon encounters and kills a young crawler; a female crawler, apparently the young crawler's mother, attacks Sarah, who falls into a pool of blood. With a bone, she kills the crawler. Elsewhere, Juno, Sam and Rebecca are pursued by a large group of crawlers. Crawlers kill Sam and Rebecca, and Juno leaps into a chasm to escape.
Juno climbs out of the chasm and is helped onto a ledge by Sarah, who asks her if she saw Beth die. Juno lies to her by nodding. The two cautiously explore the caves until they encounter a group of crawlers and defeat them. Sarah then faces Juno, and explains that she has Juno's pendant and that she knows that she wounded and left Beth for dead and also about her affair. Sarah strikes Juno in the leg with a pickaxe. Juno pulls the pickaxe from her leg and turns to face a large group of crawlers while Sarah leaves her behind, Juno's fighting screams fading as Sarah goes further. Sarah falls down a hole and is knocked unconscious. She awakens, scrambles up a huge pile of bones towards daylight, squeezes through a narrow opening onto the surface, runs to her vehicle and speeds off. She pulls over to vomit and sees Juno sitting next to her, her face streaked with blood. Sarah screams and reawakens to find herself still in the cavern, revealing the events since her previous awakening were a dream. She sees her smiling daughter close by and a birthday cake between them. The field of view widens to reveal that Sarah is hallucinating and she is actually staring at a torch. The calls of the crawlers grow louder, but Sarah is oblivious.
- Shauna Macdonald as Sarah Carter
- Natalie Mendoza as Juno Kaplan
- Alex Reid as Beth O'Brien
- MyAnna Buring as Sam Vernet
- Saskia Mulder as Rebecca Vernet
- Nora Jane Noone as Holly
- Molly Kayll as Jessica Carter
- Oliver Milburn as Paul Carter
When Neil Marshall's 2002 film Dog Soldiers was a moderate success, the director received numerous requests to direct other horror films. The director was initially wary of being typecast as a horror film director, though he eventually agreed to make The Descent, emphasising, "They are very different films." Marshall decided to cast only women in the main roles, going against the original plan for a gender diverse cast.
Filmmakers originally planned for the cast to be both male and female, but Neil Marshall's business partner realised that horror films almost never have all-female casts. Defying convention, Marshall cast all women into the role, and to avoid making them clichéd, he solicited basic advice from his female friends. He explained the difference, "The women discuss how they feel about the situation, which the soldiers in Dog Soldiers would never have done." He also gave the characters different accents to enable the audience to tell the difference between the women and to establish a more "cosmopolitan feel" than the British marketing of Dog Soldiers.
The cast included Shauna Macdonald as Sarah, Natalie Mendoza as Juno, Alex Reid as Beth, Saskia Mulder as Rebecca, MyAnna Buring as Sam, Nora-Jane Noone as Holly, Oliver Milburn as Paul, and Molly Kayll as Jessica. Craig Conway portrayed one of the film's crawlers, Scar.
While The Descent was set in North America, the film was shot entirely in the United Kingdom. Exterior scenes were filmed in Scotland, and interior scenes were filmed in sets built at Pinewood Studios near London. The cave was built at Pinewood because filmmakers considered it too dangerous and time-consuming to shoot in an actual cave. Set pieces were reused with care, and filmmakers sought to limit lighting to the sources that the characters bring with them into the cave, such as the helmet lights.
Marshall cited the films The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Thing, and Deliverance as influences in establishing tension in The Descent. The director elaborated, "We really wanted to ramp up the tension slowly, unlike all the American horror films you see now. They take it up to 11 in the first few minutes and then simply can't keep it up. We wanted to show all these terrible things in the cave: dark, drowning, claustrophobia. Then, when it couldn't get any worse, make it worse." Marshall also said at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival that was inspired by Italian horror films of the past, in particular by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.
Simon Bowles designed the maze of caves for The Descent. Reviews credited Bowles: "cave sets by production designer Simon Bowles look just like the real thing" and "Bowles’ beautifully designed cave sets conjure a world of subterranean darkness." There were 21 cave Sets, built by Rod Vass and his company Armordillo Ltd. using a unique system of polyurethane sprayed rock that was developed for this production.
Production of The Descent was in competition with an American film of a similar premise, The Cave. The Descent was originally scheduled to be released in the United Kingdom by November 2005 or February 2006, but The Cave began filming six months before its competitor. The Filmmakers of The Descent decided to release the film before The Cave, so they fast-tracked production to be completed by the end of February 2005.
The Descent was released in North America with approximately a minute cut from the end. In the American 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. The film has aired on Canada's The Movie Network with the original ending. In contrast, the American channels Syfy and IFC as recently as October 2014 broadcast the recut version of Sarah escaping, with Juno's spectre appearing beside her in the SUV.
As exhibited on Syfy (Latin America), The Descent retains the original ending, with Sarah awakening back in the cave facing her dead daughter surrounded by the crawlers.
Creature design Edit
In the film, the women encounter underground creatures referred to as crawlers by the production crew. Marshall described the crawlers as cavemen who have stayed underground. The director explained, "They've evolved in this environment over thousands of years. They've adapted perfectly to thrive in the cave. They've lost their eyesight, they have acute hearing and smell and function perfectly in the pitch black. They're expert climbers, so they can go up any rock face and that is their world." Filmmakers kept the crawler design hidden from the actresses until they were revealed in the scenes in which the characters encountered the creatures, to allow for natural tension.
Director Neil Marshall first chose to have a dark cave as the setting for his horror film The Descent then decided to add the element of the crawlers, describing them as "something that could get the women, something human, but not quite". The crawlers were depicted as cavemen who never left the caves and evolved in the dark. The director included mothers and children in the colony of creatures, defining his vision, "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."
The crawlers were designed by Paul Hyett, a makeup and prosthetics creator. Production designer Simon Bowles said that the crawler design had started out as "wide-eyed and more creature-like", but the design shifted toward a more human appearance. Crawlers originally had pure white skin, but the look was adjusted to seem grubbier. The skin was originally phosphorescent in appearance, but the effect was too bright and reflective in the darkened set, so the adjustment was made for them to blend in shadows. The director barred the film's all-female cast from seeing the actors in full crawler make-up until their first appearance on screen. Actress Natalie Mendoza said of the effect, "When the moment came, I nearly wet my pants! I was running around afterwards, laughing in this hysterical way and trying to hide the fact that I was pretty freaked out. Even after that scene, we never really felt comfortable with them."
The crawlers reappear in The Descent Part 2, a sequel by Jon Harris with the first film's director Neil Marshall as executive producer. For the sequel, Hyett improved the camouflaging ability of the crawlers' skin tones to deliver better scares. According to Hyett, "Jon wanted them more viciously feral, inbred, scarred and deformed, with rows of sharklike teeth for ripping flesh." A charnel house was designed for the crawlers as well as a set that the crew called the "Crawler Crapper".
The Descent premiered at the Scottish horror film festival Dead by Dawn on 6 July 2005. The film opened commercially to the public in the UK on 10 July 2005, showing on 329 screens and earned £2.6 million. The film received limited releases in other European countries. The London bombings in the same month was reported to have affected the box office performance of The Descent.
The film has received critical acclaim. Based on 171 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, The Descent received an 85% "Certified Fresh" overall approval rating, with the site's consensus stating "Deft direction and strong performances from its all-female cast guide The Descent, a riveting, claustrophobic horror film. In this low-budget import from Scotland, director Neil Marshall has masterfully created a spelunking nightmare, which doubles as a compelling meditation on morality, vengeance, and the depths to which we might go for survival." By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 71 out of 100 from 30 reviews. On its debut weekend in the US, The Descent opened with a three-day gross of $8.8 million, and finished with $26,005,908. Total worldwide box office receipts are $57,051,053. Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars. He wrote, "This is the fresh, exciting summer movie I've been wanting for months. Or for years, it seems." Manohla Dargis of The New York Times described The Descent as "one of the better horror entertainments of the last few years", calling it "indisputably and pleasurably nerve-jangling". Dargis applauded the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, though she perceived sexual overtones in the all-female cast with their laboured breathing and sweaty clothing. Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald thought that the film devolved into a guessing game of who would survive, though he praised Marshall's "nightmare imagery" for generating scares that work better than other horror films. Rodriguez also noted the attempt to add dimension to the female characters but felt that the actresses were unable to perform.
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