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.
The Sets Were Painted And Repurposed To Look Like Different Parts Of The Caves
With a small budget that only allowed for six cave sets, Marshall and his team reused each set to create fresh caves for The Descent. Marshall said, "[Production Designer] Simon [Bowles] did a fantastic job in the production design, but we [did] have a problem of not simply having enough money to make the set stretch throughout the whole story... the same little piece of set gets used again and again."
The team made small changes to each cave face when rearranging for new scenes. To make each cave uniquely terrifying and claustrophobic, the crew added water to dry walls, swapped out the plant life, and even changed the angle of the rocks. Bowles explained that the crew built the caves using a combination of molds from real cliff faces, as well as a foam spray to create realistic-looking stalactites. Actress Myanna Buring said, "You... have to see [the cave sets] to believe them, they're these really realistic caves and alcoves and tunnels which suddenly open up into these huge sort of rooms filled with the most amazing stone architecture and it's all a form of polystyrene which is just mind-blowing."
A green screen was also used during the adventurers' initial descent into the cave system because the room was too large to build on a budget. The effects team then used the footage to superimpose the actresses descending on top of a model background plate.
Star Shauna Macdonald Suffered From Dehydration After Filming The Bloodbath Scene
As the characters get separated in the final act of the film, Sarah finds herself in a cave full of brittle bones and a giant, horrifying pool of fluid. Sarah submerges herself to hide from the Crawlers before emerging to fight a female Crawler. This scene is one of the most visceral scenes in the entire movie, and while filming, it was also a health concern. Macdonald said:
I was swimming around in this very hot substance for a full day... At the end of the day, I got home and I was acting very weird. I didn't know why I was acting weird. I was bumping into things and talking nonsense. Finally, I realized I was severely dehydrated. I had basically been in the bath sweating forever. You don't realize it because you are wet the whole day.
But despite the health hazard, Macdonald said filming that scene remains her most vivid memory, and one she immensely enjoyed:
The [scenes] of me in the bloodbath and then I get out and have a fight with the crawler... It was all done chronologically. I knew those were such epic parts of the film. The [scene] of me screaming, the [scene] of my eyes, the [scene] of me taking the crawlers eyes out, and the [scene] of me coming up from the water; I got to do all of that in 48 hours. I was like oh my god, I'm kicking [butt]!
I also thought I better enjoy this because it's not going to happen again. You have to remember this moment because when you are an old grandmother, you'll remember the time you kicked [butt] in the film.
To Prepare, The Actresses Practiced Rock Climbing, White Water Rafting, And Of Course, Caving
Shauna Macdonald explained that in preparation for filming The Descent, the entire cast had to get in shape:
[We] got to do this two-week boot camp where we got to learn everything... all the technicalities on what to do. So when it became time to [film], there was no time wasted. We weren't fiddling around with our harnesses and trying to figure everything out. We just got on it and we knew what to do.
Natalie Mendoza agreed, saying she was grateful for the climbing lessons: "Knowing how to grab parts of the wall, I'm so glad we had that training because you can feel quite clumsy and it is quite dangerous."
Macdonald further explained that the actresses needed to stay in shape in order to deal with the seven-week schedule full of climbing, caving, and fighting with creepy Crawlers:
It was a very physically draining [schedule]. You are [filming] for 12 hours a day, and if you are not fit, you are not fully focused on what you are doing. You are too busy thinking about how tired you are, instead of thinking about what you are supposed to be doing with the script. [In preparation], I was climbing a lot on different walls... I was running hard and trying to get as physically fit as I could. I wanted the character to look capable.
While Filming, They Mostly Limited Themselves To Only Using Light Sources The Characters Would Have With ThemPhoto: Lions Gate Films
Neil Marshall said, "Horror films are best set in the dark, and you can't get anymore dark than [caves]."
This did, however, prove difficult when it came to actually filming in the intricate set of tunnels the crew built at Pinewood Studios outside London. Marshall recalled:
Lighting was an important aspect. We decided at the beginning that we wanted to do a film in a cave in which the only sources of light were those the characters brought down there... We soon realized that, handily enough, they have lights on their helmets. So when two characters are talking they are lighting one another.
The use of eerie red emergency flares, headlamps, and even matches makes The Descent a dark and gritty film where claustrophobia and fear of the dark are almost as terrifying as the appearance of Crawlers in the final act. Almost.