A Look Behind The Scenes Of 'The Descent,' The Classic Claustrophobic Nightmare Film

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.

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  • The Filmmakers Were In A Race With Another Cave Creature Feature In Production

    The Filmmakers Were In A Race With Another Cave Creature Feature In Production
    Photo: The Cave / Screen Gems

    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.'"

  • The Film Was Originally Going To Feature Men And Women

    The Film Was Originally Going To Feature Men And Women
    Photo: The Descent / Pathé Distribution

    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.

  • Marshall Was Determined Not To Make The All-Female Cast Cliches

    Marshall Was Determined Not To Make The All-Female Cast Cliches
    Photo: The Descent / Pathé Distribution

    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]."

  • The Cast Developed Intricate Backstories For Their Characters To Enhance Their Friendship Onscreen

    The Cast Developed Intricate Backstories For Their Characters To Enhance Their Friendship Onscreen
    Photo: The Descent / Pathé Distribution

    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.

  • Most Of The Actresses Saw The Crawlers For The First Time On Camera

    Most Of The Actresses Saw The Crawlers For The First Time On Camera
    Photo: The Descent / Pathé Distribution

    Fifty-six tension-soaked, claustrophobic minutes into The Descent, after a few subtle glimpses of subterranean flesh, a ferocious Crawler finally makes his debut. Standing directly behind Beth, and seen through Holly's camera, the screaming Crawler ushers in the film's chaotic finale. 

    But it isn't just the first time audiences see a Crawler, this scene was also the first time many of the actresses saw a Crawler. Due to its limited budget and Neil Marshall's desire to build suspense on set, The Descent was filmed more or less chronologically, which meant he was able to keep the Crawlers away from the actresses for the first few weeks of filming. Natalie Mendoza recalled:

    The first time seeing a crawler was genuinely the first time, and [Neil Marshall] deliberately kept them separate from us so that he could get a genuine reaction. So, someone asked me just before, what do you think you're going to feel like... and we're like, "We're gonna be fine, we're actors, you know? We'll act surprised."

    And sure enough, when the moment came, I genuinely screamed, and then I knew I was really scared when I started running around just laughing hysterically... Because it wasn't I found it funny, I was just really flipping out about it... It was terrifying, and we didn't really get to know the actors as well... they were quite menacing...

    Shauna Macdonald said the tension leading up to the big reveal of the Crawlers built a genuine fear in the actresses:

    [Marshall] kept them apart from us for the whole... however many months... So they had been talked about for six weeks... we had the suspense weighing on us, "What do the look like? Oh... my... god..." And when we finally saw them it was like, "Ah!" Because when you know it is coming, those are the worst scares... when you know something is coming.

  • Marshall Cites A Wealth Of Horror Movies As Inspiration For 'The Descent'

    Marshall Cites A Wealth Of Horror Movies As Inspiration For 'The Descent'
    Photo: The Shining / Warner Bros.

    Between the gratuitous use of fluids, existential dread, and of course, a final girl who rivals Alien's Ripley, it's no wonder The Descent's Neil Marshall cited a wealth of horror film classics as inspiration for his film. Marshall said:

    My favorite horror films, and the films that have inspired this more than any other, I'd have to say [are] Deliverance, Alien, and The Shining, each dealing with aspects of this film in different ways. The Shining about somebody going [off the rails], Alien about atmosphere and menace, and dark spaces, and Deliverance, about the idea of an adventure trip that goes wrong.

    In another interview, Marshall cited the slow pace and drawn out tension of '70s horror films as inspiration. He 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... The whole idea was to go back to the great horror films of the 1970s that I grew up on and loved: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Deliverance.

    It wasn't just Marshall who foresaw The Descent's place alongside these memorable films, however. Actress Shauna Macdonald hoped the film would join the canon of great horror classics. She said:

    I hope that [The Descent is] a film that lasts for a long time. I hope one day that my grand-kids and kids can watch it and think it's a brilliant film. I hope it's a horror film that stands the test of time like Alien or The Shining. It doesn't matter how many years later that you watch it, it's still amazing. I hope that happens.