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

Updated October 22, 2019 26.8k views12 items

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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  • 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'

    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.

  • The Caves And Tunnels Were Actually A Massive Set In London

    Photo: The Descent / Pathé Distribution

    While The Descent is set in the American Appalachian Mountains, the filming took place entirely in the United Kingdom. The exterior scenes were filmed in Scotland, while the caving scenes were all filmed at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where various Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Alien films were also produced. 

    According to Neil Marshall, "We decided early on it was too dangerous and time-consuming to work in a [real] cave... We all went on a caving trip once together, but there is no actual caving at all in the picture. We built it all in Pinewood and had to be very imaginative."

    The crew built an intricate set of six caves, which were then rearranged and redressed to look like different sections of the uncharted caving system where the six heroines become trapped. The film's intense sense of claustrophobia is due in large part to this imaginative production design. The caves were so realistic and frightening that actress MyAnna Buring ​​​​​said, "It's great to work [on the cave set] because although you're surrounded by crew and cameras... you can... just turn your face slightly and it's as if you're actually in a real cave and you get the same sense of claustrophobia that you get when you're caving."

  • American Distributors Cut The Ending Because They Thought It Was Too Depressing

    Photo: The Descent / Pathé Distribution

    For American fans of The Descent who had to wait a whole year for the premiere of the word-of-mouth sensation film, the Crawlers weren't the only surprise. The American ending is very different from the original, and slightly more upbeat. Allegedly, the original ending did not sit well with British audiences. So when Lionsgate Films picked up The Descent for American distribution, marketing chief Tim Palen said that the studio decided to work with Neil Marshall to lighten up the ending. He stated, "It's a visceral ride, and by the time you get to the ending you're drained... Marshall had a number of endings in mind when he [was filming] so he was open [to making the switch]."

    Marshall ultimately cut the film's final minute and used an alternate scene for the American edit. He claimed the American ending is closer to the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "Just because she gets away, does that make it a happy ending?"

    Not in the slightest.