The Descent
More info i
Credit: Lionsgate

This Week in Genre History: The Descent reminded us how claustrophobic we are

Contributed by
Aug 5, 2020, 4:47 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to “This Week in Genre History,” where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

In the mid-aughts, Neil Marshall was an aspiring English director in his 30s trying to make a name for himself. The son of a painter father, he had worked as an editor for nearly a decade before getting a shot at his first feature, 2002’s horror-comedy Dog Soldiers. But he hadn’t entirely liked how it had turned out.

“I thought it wasn’t particularly scary,” he later admitted. “It came out as a black comedy more than anything else. I still had this fundamental need in me to make a horror film that genuinely terrified people. In the same way that I was genuinely terrified by the likes of Deliverance or Alien or The Shining, all those films from the '70s that I grew up with and have haunted me ever since. There was also a need to make a horror film that took itself seriously, that played it straight.”

His ambitions were realized, brilliantly, with his second feature. Inspired by a childhood trip he’d taken to a cave, The Descent recalled past horror classics but was electrified by its psychological underpinnings and its then-novel idea of featuring an all-female cast. On one level, the movie is a simple thrill ride about a group of friends who go on a spelunking adventure, only to get lost and then discover that the cave is populated by hungry, scary, albino creatures.

But beneath the surface, The Descent is a potent study of grief and trauma, led by Shauna Macdonald, who plays Sarah, a woman still grieving the death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident a year earlier. Sarah’s not just fighting for her life — she’s processing the pain of that loss, lowering herself into a cave that’s a metaphor for the dark regions of her psyche scarred by that tragedy. The film was viscerally frightening but also intellectually rich — which made the scares that much more emotional, even thought-provoking.

The Descent was a sensation on the festival circuit and in the U.K. before finally hitting U.S. theaters on Aug. 4, 2006, paving the way for its status as one of this century’s most beloved cult horror films. And we’re still debating the ending — both of them.

Why was it a big deal at the time? The early 2000s were an era of torture porn and endless J-horror remakes. Saw was becoming a major franchise, while a new generation of filmmakers were paying tribute to George A. Romero, either as direct homage (Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead) or as tongue-in-cheek reinvention (Edgar Wright’s inspired horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead). Horror was popular at the box office, no doubt thanks in part to the societal anguish stirred up by the then-recent 9/11 attacks, and one of the genre’s most appealing qualities was that if you had a good idea that you could shoot on a low budget, you could get your movie made.

Marshall’s light-bulb moment came when he was traveling. “I was on a train journey and had an idea for a film set in a cave, [and] on the same trip I had an idea for a horror film,” the writer-director said in 2006. “Then the two ideas sort of came together as one.”

Realizing that a cave would be a clever horror setting — ripe for triggering viewers’ fear of tight spaces, the dark, and being buried alive — he decided to make the characters all women. “[I] wanted to do something with an all-female ensemble cast which, in an action-horror film, is quite unique,” he later recalled. Avoiding the sexist clichés usually seen in horror movies — no buxom, horny babes who just shriek and run around — Marshall made Sarah and her pals (including Natalie Mendoza’s prideful Juno and Alex Reid’s fiercely loyal Beth) smart, nuanced individuals so that we actually cared about them. That might seem like a low bar, but at a time when action movies with female leads were considered commercially risky, The Descent’s compelling women were downright revolutionary.

By the time the film arrived in the U.S. in 2006 — a little more than a year after it hit U.K. theaters — significant word of mouth had developed for this indie horror movie with no stars that was supposedly incredibly scary. Plus, The Descent’s old-school scares sounded refreshingly out of step in a horror landscape dominated by haunted VHS tapes and creepy puppets riding tricycles. The film had played its share of genre festivals but, remarkably, it also was programmed as part of the prestigious slate at Venice and Sundance. Horror movies often rely on buzz, but advance praise for The Descent suggested that this was something really special.

What was the impact? Lionsgate released The Descent as counterprogramming against the Will Ferrell blockbuster comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and while it would be a stretch to call the movie a smash, it more than held its own, pulling in $26 million in the States to go along with $31 million overseas. Considering the movie reportedly had a budget of only £3.5 million (or roughly $6 million), that made it a huge financial success.

But if you really want to measure The Descent’s impact, look at people’s faces when you bring up the film. As Marshall ratchets up the tension, the movie goes from being anxiety-inducing to straight-up horrifying as we discover that the characters are surrounded by “crawlers” who reside in this uncharted cave, devouring anything foolish enough to wander into their lair. (Damn it, Juno, you really should have brought the guidebook with you.) 

“[M]aking them more human makes them more scary,” Marshall has said about letting the crawlers have humanoid features, even if they’re blind as a bat and sickeningly pale, with gruesome teeth and a blood-curdling wail. “They have human attributes and that’s far more terrifying than any fantastical creature.” And because he never revealed their backstory, they felt primordial — an unfiltered manifestation of our unconscious fears.

But then there’s the story’s deeper layer, which concerns Sarah repeatedly having a vision of her dead daughter celebrating her birthday. In a sense, this grieving woman is going within herself by entering that cursed cave. A nifty metaphor for the womb or the subconscious, The Descent’s cave allows its main character to work through her despair, forced to literally pull herself back up to the light in order to be saved. This notion of enduring a grueling ordeal in order to let go of past trauma has shown up in subsequent films as different as Gravity and Midsommar: In each case, the present terror is tied to a simmering psychic wound that must be healed. Sarah’s not just trying to survive the crawlers — she’s trying to become whole again.

Has it held up? Despite a few tired genre conventions — when a horror film pauses for a character to complain about her loud, glowing wristwatch, you can bet that will become important later — The Descent remains a nasty, efficient little horror movie that makes great use of infrared photography and jump scares. (And its notion of a monster that can’t see but attacks through acute hearing was later utilized in A Quiet Place.) 

The Descent inspired a less-well-received 2009 sequel that brought back Macdonald and Mendoza but featured new writers and a new director. Marshall was an executive producer of the follow-up, but didn’t seem too enthused about it: “The Descent was never intended to have a sequel, I don’t think the story warrants a sequel, but there is a sequel so make of it what you will.”

Speaking of Marshall, he has struggled to regain the magic he found with The Descent. In recent years, he’s made a poorly received Michael Fassbender film (Centurion) and saw his 2019 Hellboy reboot get trashed by critics and fail at the box office. (However, he’s had better luck as a director on episodes of acclaimed TV dramas like Game of Thrones, Hannibal, and Westworld.)

None of that, however, diminishes the raw power of The Descent — or the arguments about the ending. For the film’s original U.K. release, Marshall had Sarah escape the cave, only to reveal that the happy resolution was all in her head — in reality, she was trapped inside, with the crawlers getting closer. But for the U.S. version, he decided to chop off that last bit, ending on Sarah screaming in horror as she gets in the car, turning to see the presumably-dead Juno sitting next to her. 

“It’s an ending that I really love,” Marshall said about the original U.K. ending. “But when it was released, it split audiences down the middle. Some people loved it, some people hated it. Given almost a second chance with its release in the U.S., I thought, ‘Well, let’s just try the other ending.’” 

His initial instincts were correct: While it’s a little predictable, the original ending’s big shockaroo twist suggests that, in some ways, we can never truly escape trauma. It’s always going to be part of us. And that ending also speaks to what remains so powerful about The Descent — that sense that we’re as trapped as the characters in this underground maze of unspeakable terror.

“When I made The Descent, I very specifically set out to make the scariest movie I could,” Marshall said in 2016. “There was malicious intent on my part, I wanted to scare the shit out of people ... I thought maybe three out of 10 people suffered from claustrophobia and they would have a really hard time with it, what I discovered is that it’s more like nine out of 10. More people are afraid of the claustrophobia in that film than the monsters.” For my money, it’s a tossup between the two. 

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Make Your Inbox Important

Like Comic-Con. Except every week in your inbox.

Sign-up breaker