You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
For Halloween Week, Felix Hubble takes a look at one of the best horror films in recent memory, and a film celebrating its 10th anniversary – Neil Marshall’s The Descent.
Released in 2005, that weird transitional phase in which genre cinema like this could still raise a semi-decent budget and was still shot on film, Neil Marshall’s second film – The Descent – follows a group of female spelunkers, reuniting for another caving adventure following the death of Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald; our lead) husband and daughter in a car accident. Marshall, not content to simply toy with one concept, however, takes his conceit further; in addition to crafting a wholly claustrophobic and tense caving adventure, the second half of his film forks, morphing into a gory, blood-fueled creature feature as the group is attacked by an Ork-like army of cave dwellers. The Descent is a jump-scare machine superimposed over a tension-driven horror narrative that never relents, constantly finding new ways to shock and frighten its audience. It’s a truly unique effort overall, with a rich backstory and a fascinating array of influences, and is easily one of the best horror films of the past decade.
Off the back of the moderate success of his first feature Dog Soldiers in 2002, Marshall received numerous offers for future projects, which eventually led to the greenlighting of The Descent. Although the film was initially planned with a more gender diverse cast in mind, Marshall decided to cast women in all of the main roles after a friend pointed out that there were almost no horror films with full female casts – Marshall sought assistance from women in the industry and friends to alter the script so as to fit such means. This leads to an interesting take on the power-dynamics of the genre film, and while one plot twist can come off as removing power from our lead and placing it with her husband, for a film like The Descent, which so unabashedly leaps full force into the portrayal of strong, charismatic, badass chicks – never doing so for exploitative value – it still manages to position itself a massive cut above most of the other male-directed, female-centric horror cinema out there.
Marshall’s intricate cave system, a maze of never-ending corridors and chambers, maintains a constant unique look due to the intentional constraints placed upon lighting sources (helmet lights, flares, fire etc.). The caving structure – designed by Simon Bowles, who has worked on all of Marshall’s features to date – was comprised of 21 unique locations, each constructed from a unique polyurethane sprayed rock material which was developed for use in this production. The 21 locations were reused various times throughout the feature to expand the scope of Marshall’s cave.
Marshall drew from a number of influences to construct his film; while some – like The Shining – are more overt in the film’s cinematography (particularly early on in the film), others served as a more hidden, structural influence. Of note are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, and The Thing, which Marshall has cited as influences over his construction of tension in the film. Marshall sees these films as establishing and maintaining tension throughout, starting things off small, but introducing further horrific elements as time passes to gradually ramp up the tension throughout, reaching a climax at their finales. This operates in contrast to the current Hollywood system of horror direction, that plays all of its cards in the opening sequence to attain maximum impact in the shortest amount of time, then has nowhere to go. Also of note are the influence of Giallo directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci in terms of the use of lighting throughout, most apparent in sequences that see the caving structures lit in neon reds, greens and blues. In fact, The Descent feels somewhat like a grab-bag of horror influences that have been perfectly distilled down for unique deployment in a separate narrative, paying homage to the past but never with a wink or a nudge, too restrained to cross over into overly overt territory. It’s a unique talent to pull this off, and one that Marshall demonstrates in spades, allowing the film to subtly benefit from cultural touchstones that are never too obvious as to break immersion.
A major factor of the film’s success is the way in which Marshall toys with anxiety and paranoia, obfuscating reality. By asserting that Sarah is somewhat mentally unhinged after the death of her husband and daughter, and framing much of the film through her perspective, Marshall is able to toy with fact vs. fiction, and allows for a potential reading which sees the film as a mental breakdown, with Sarah spooking her friends with the notion of things that go bump in the night – a total possibility as those caves alone are terrifying – before killing them off one by one in the ensuing fallout. Although such a reading is unlikely and weakens the overall feature – introducing a number of plotholes – by leaving his film somewhat open to interpretation, Marshall increases its power, forcing us to question the reality of what we’ve seen, leaving a much stronger impression than a more traditional, cut and dry narrative.
It’s surprising that Marshall’s feature turned out this well, given that The Descent had its production fast-tracked by 9-12 months in order to beat The Cave – an American film with a similar premise – to release. The loss of this 9-12 months in pre- and post-production isn’t noticeable, with the film lacking major shortcomings and holding together far better than a lot of features without this sort of interference. It’s a testament to the talent of Marshall that he was able to develop and deliver something as rich and interesting as The Descent, that operated perfectly under its constraints in such a limited window.
The Descent will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the film that introduced me to the fanedit community – the first version of the film I ever saw was actually The Descent: Scary as Hell Edition by 3Raz0r. Fanedits are re-cuts of films made by fans looking to improve upon, or experiment with their source material. The most famous fanedits are the bevy of recuts of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, with the Phantom Editor’s The Phantom Edit – that was originally circulated through bootleg VHS tapes at fan conventions and the like – one of the most notable re-cuts of all time, receiving much media coverage and seeing endorsement from Lucasfilms and Kevin Smith alike. In creator Mike J. Nichol’s words, The Phantom Edit sought to “make a much stronger version of The Phantom Menace based on the previous execution and philosophies of film storytelling and editing made famous by George Lucas himself.” Fanedit circles have changed a lot over time, with most fanedits now served through the Internet Fanedit Database with faneditors congregating on their associated forums.1
The ‘Scary as Hell’ edits were part of an ongoing series of experiments by 3Raz0r to reconstruct horror movies with less unnecessary exposition and a higher density of scares. Many of his fanedits were performed on films that saw critical ridicule like The Hills Have Eyes 2, although he occasionally dipped his toes into more sound material, never trying to “fix” films, just trying to make them even more terrifying than they already were. After watching his riff on The Descent – yes, it was scary as hell – I was hooked, promptly tracking down both the original and US cuts. In the context of The Descent, the existence of fanedits isn’t too out of the ordinary, given the different editions of the film released in different regions.2 While 3Raz0r’s cut was definitely frightening, Marshall’s original UK cut retained all of the scares and upped the tension, and is – in my opinion – the strongest version of the film that has been released, a near-flawless masterpiece of modern horror.3
In a sense, it’s the sort of film that isn’t really worthy of a fanedit. Marshall has crafted every scare, every gag so meticulously that to modify their presentation – even when they don’t necessarily work – is a disservice to his craft. From an opening that posits a looming threat to make the audience instinctively feel like they don’t know what is around the corner at any given time – an unpredictability that exacerbates the tension once we enter the cave, to the ongoing minor tensions and power relations within the group of friends; from the olive branch of a dumb bat gag – a threat of what this film might have become in less capable hands – that introduces us to the caving system, to the variety of imaginative ways Marshall generates bumps and jumps in the night to keep his audience constantly on edge, The Descent is a calculated, balanced and self-aware effort, with strength in its consistency. To disrupt the flow of his film is to lessen our literal and metaphorical journey into hell through his lens.
More than anything, though, The Descent is just a damn good, absolutely terrifying movie. Anybody with a penchant for horror who hasn’t seen this should seek this out, however whatever you do, do not watch the lazy, non-frightening, canon-modifying, atrocious excuse for a sequel – it’s the perfect example of what this content would look like in the wrong hands.
Conor Bateman: Make no mistake, The Descent is terrifying. I say that as someone who’s not an expert on horror cinema, and also as someone who mostly detests jumpscares. They’re often so cheap and easy, the cinematic equivalent of those online pranks where you have to move a dot along a path, only to have a demon face suddenly appear on your screen. What’s different about most of the jump scares in The Descent is that almost all of them never feel cheap, they feel hard-earned. That’s because, much like Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, Marshall is letting us scare ourselves. The orc-like cave creatures don’t appear until around 40 minutes into the film, and up until then Marshall mostly traffics in tone and mood. There are some good jolting moments, to be sure, but once the group of women enter the cave, it’s the waiting game that becomes the most scary thing. As Felix pointed out, so much of this comes down to the work of production designer Simon Bowles and the film’s use of lighting. Most of the early cave scenes are shrouded in darkness, and scene transitions are often as simple as someone turning their torch away in one scene and then back in another location, disorienting us and preventing us from making any real visual links in terms of the maze-like structure of the physical space. I had put off watching The Descent for many years, not only because of its brilliant and unnerving poster but also because I knew that a subterranean horror film would definitely work on me. I’m happy to have watched it now, and on its 10th anniversary no less, because it really is one of the more impressive horror films I’ve seen in quite some time.
Jessica Ellicott: One of the things that really struck me about The Descent was how deftly it switches between filmmaking modes. It hurtles along a wildly unexpected trajectory from white-water rafting antics, sudden horrific car accident, psychological horror to fun sleepover camp, then from feel-bad Touching the Void to batshit insane creature horror. That The Descent manages to do all these things and still remain genuinely terrifying, and sustain its audience’s attention, is no mean feat. (Although, that said, when the orc-crawler things come in I did laugh more than was probably intended – they are a little ridiculous.) In a way, it reminded me of American indie stalwart John Sayles’ excellent Limbo (1999) – which swiftly changes gears from slow-paced small-town drama into a high-stakes, Cast Away-esque tale of mortal peril. It’s a bold, fascinating film that’s clearly a product of pure passion and inventiveness. Like Conor, I’d avoided it out of fear it’d play too strongly to my own claustrophobia, leaving me never want to go anywhere near a cave again. That fear was 100% justified, because I sure as hell am never going caving now, but hey, it was worth it for The Descent.