When the British horror film The Descent hit American theaters in August 2006, it had already won over UK audiences and premiered with rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival. But behind the scenes, The Descent survived on an extremely low budget, broke the genre mold with its all-female cast, and even worked around the clock to release before an American competitor film.
In the years since, The Descent has garnered an international following due to its unnervingly claustrophobic premise, impeccable acting and direction, and utterly horrifying special effects. Set a year after the protagonist Sarah has suffered a traumatic loss, The Descent follows six female friends on their adventurous attempt to get Sarah's life back to normal. When a cave they are exploring crumbles and leaves them stranded in an uncharted system in the Appalachians with limited supplies and no hope for rescue, their friendships and survival skills are put to the test.
As if things aren't bad enough, the women quickly realize they are not alone. They encounter a civilization of humanoid underground beings who have an acute sense of hearing and an otherworldly lust for blood. The film quickly blossoms into a hybrid slasher and psychological drama.
According to the filmmakers and actresses, the making of The Descent was exciting, terrifying, and creatively fulfilling. With a desire to create fleshed-out characters and slowly build tension, writer-director Neil Marshall (who has since directed episodes of Game of Thrones and Westworld) brought his love for horror and his openness for collaboration to the set, and as millions of fans can attest, it worked.
Directed by Bruce Hunt, The Cave premiered in 2005 and follows a team as they are lowered underneath the decrepit remains of an ancient Romanian abbey. Quickly, they find that they are not the only ones below the surface, and then creatures who can fly and use sonar slowly take out the cast of archetypes and caricatures.
While The Descent was in pre-production, writer-director Neil Marshall didn't know that The Cave was in no way his film's equal. All he knew was that there was another movie that centered around a team going down into the depths of the Earth, only to find horrific creatures, and that this film was connected to an American studio with a large budget.
Marshall said, "[The Cave] eventually started filming six months before us... they had all the advantages and we had all the disadvantages. But it occurred to me that we had this more British sensibility: 'We are surely trying to do something bleaker. Let's go ahead with it anyway.'"
Marshall moved up the scheduled release date of The Descent so it would premiere before The Cave. The Descent premiered in the UK just three weeks after the initial film reel was delivered. Marshall recalled, "We were originally going to release after [The Cave], in November or next February, but then we thought, 'Let's get it out before them. That'll really piss on their chips.'"
Marshall's first film Dog Soldiers, released in 2002, follows a mostly male cast of troops lost in Scotland as they encounter werewolves. While The Descent is often lauded for being a horror film with a well-rounded cast of all-female characters, the original idea was to make a cave horror film featuring men and women. Marshall said:
The first idea was just a horror film in a cave... and originally the cast was going to be mixed gender, but then it occurred to my business partner that horror films almost never have a female cast. So we made all the cavers women. But, it was important that I didn't make them cliches: either ladettes or victims. I talked to my female friends as I wrote and got advice - basic advice, but it worked.
Marshall did admit that his original script didn't feature three-dimensional characters, though. He elaborated:
The first draft of the script was a lot more... caricatured, the women were a bit more stylized, and slightly unrealistic... The action hasn't changed at all, the actual story progression and the physical action that happens with it hasn't changed at all... but the characters have just... become much more real, more human and it's just been a question of adding layers to them. I call it the flaky pastry principal.
Shauna Macdonald expressed her enthusiasm for playing Sarah in The Descent due to the film's fresh representation of women. The female leads in The Descent are more than just symbols - they're fully realized and fleshed-out characters. She said, "I was thrilled! I wouldn't have done the film if it was going to be all about the girls being really [into their looks] and [sensual] symbols... I just think [that would be] really boring."
Neil Marshall shared the actresses' concern, and Macdonald recounted that he reassured his cast, telling her, "It wasn't going to be a wet t-shirt competition or anything like that. [Marshall] told me these are real girls fighting and it will be as real as possible. It's so much better because of that. Also, because of that, we look [better]."
MyAnna Buring, who plays Sam, said, "I find it fantastic that we can explore those metaphors in such a tactile way. I think that's something that is missing from a lot of art nowadays."
Natalie Mendoza said she was excited to play the complicated character of Juno, whose affair with Sarah's husband before his untimely demise provides a tense and excruciating undercurrent for the film's interpersonal drama. She said, "For me as an Asian actor, one of the key things was that [Juno] wasn't written as an Asian character, it was an opportunity for me to play a really well thought-out character which is very full... and that for any actor is a real blessing, you don't come across [often]."
Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza said the cast worked diligently to flesh out their characters during pre-production as well as on set. Macdonald said of pre-production:
It was that period, with meeting the girls, and I met the director properly and we discussed our back stories and all that, I thought "This is gonna be great!" because we're taking it to the next level of horror films, we're not being the fluffy one dimensional characters, we're actually trying to tell a story of friendships and stuff. And [Neil Marshall] gave us full reign [sic] over it.
Natalie Mendoza, who plays Juno, agreed, saying:
Yeah, I mean we were usually on the floor, kind of working through stuff, what was our history, what actually really happened between Shauna's character and her husband, what happened between him and Juno, so I knew exactly what the story was, and we all got really clear. None of that stuff is in the film... none of it's in the script, but we fleshed it out, and that's what people are picking up on.
Both actresses said the process was collaborative and that they were encouraged to develop their characters and their backstories. Mendoza recalled:
[Marshall] wasn't interested in [the actresses] playing one-dimensional characters... and I think in horror, it's very easy to do that... horror can easily... rely on a formula and [Marshall] really allowed us to... flesh these characters out, give them lots of different levels, give them a backstory, and we really worked hard on those backstories.