The Descent

The Descent
The Descent

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Neil Marshall
Produced by Christian Colson
Written by Neil Marshall
Starring Shauna Macdonald
Natalie Mendoza
Alex Reid
Saskia Mulder
MyAnna Buring
Nora Jane Noone
Music by David Julyan
Cinematography Sam McCurdy
Editing by Jon Harris
Studio Celador Films
Northmen Productions
Distributed by Pathé (Europe)
Lionsgate (North America)
Release date(s) 6 July 2005 (2005-07-06) (Dead by Dawn)
8 July 2005 (2005-07-08)
Running time 99 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £3.5 million[1]
Box office $57,051,053[2]

The Descent is a 2005 British horror film written and directed by Neil Marshall. The film follows six women who, having entered an unmapped cave system, become trapped, and are hunted by subterranean flesh-eating humanoids.

Filming took place in the United Kingdom; exterior scenes were filmed at Ashridge Park, in Buckinghamshire, and interior scenes were filmed in sets built at Pinewood Studios near London. Filmmakers considered it too dangerous and time-consuming to shoot in an actual cave, and the cave featured in the film was built at the studio. The Descent opened commercially 8 July 2005 in the United Kingdom. It premiered in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and opened commercially on 4 August 2006 in the United States.



Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Beth (Alex Reid) are whitewater rafting in Scotland. Sarah's husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) wave and cheer from the bank. On the drive back to their hotel Paul is distracted, causing a head-on collision. The car into which he collides is carrying copper poles on the hood. The poles impale Paul and Jessica through the head, killing them instantly. Sarah survives and is extremely distraught over their deaths.

One year later, Juno, Sarah, Beth, Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are reunited at a rustic cabin in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, USA. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno's new thrill-seeking friend, is introduced. As they reminisce over an old photo of Juno, Sarah, and Beth, Sarah says "Love each day", explaining that it was a saying of her late husband's; they then toast to their upcoming adventure. Though the group believes they are getting together for old times sake, Juno and Beth have planned this adventure to help Sarah recover from the psychological trauma of losing her family, as she still suffers from nightmares and hallucinations of the accident and of her daughter, despite her heavy medications.

The next morning the group drives off into the wilderness and goes caving, supposedly in Borhem Caverns, which Holly disparages as a 'tourist trap'. When the group breaks for lunch in a huge gallery, Juno tearfully apologizes to Sarah for not being around for her after the accident, but Sarah is distant. As the group moves through the next passage, Sarah gets stuck and panics. Beth manages to calm her down but the tunnel collapses behind them, and Sarah barely makes it through. After a heated discussion, Juno admits that she has led them into an unknown cave system, instead of the fully explored Borhem cave system as they had originally planned. The only people who were told about their expedition think they are at Borhem, making rescue impossible. Privately, Juno tells Sarah that she led them into the unknown cave hoping to restore their relationship, but Sarah rebuffs her, thinking like the rest of the group that the whole trip was to flaunt Juno's reputation as an outdoors expert and explorer. The existence of a second exit is suggested by a cave painting, and climbing equipment from previous visitors, giving the group some hope for escape.

Holly falls down a hole and breaks her leg. Sam sets Holly's fracture with a splint and they carry her along. As the others help Holly, Sarah wanders off and observes a pale, humanoid creature drinking at a pool. It scampers off into the darkness when Sarah gasps, allowing it to become aware of her existence. The others think Sarah imagined it, but Sarah insists that she saw someone.

Soon after, the cave splits into multiple dark passages, littered with the skeletons of dead animals. The group is terrified. Rebecca cracks and begins vainly calling out into the darkness for help. The group is attacked by one of the creatures (which they call "crawlers"). The group scatters, and the crawler rips open Holly's throat. Sarah trips, falls into a pit and passes out. Seeing Holly is still alive, Juno tries to defend her from the crawlers, but in the confusion accidentally stabs Beth in the neck with her pickaxe. Beth grabs Juno's pendant as she drops to the ground, but Juno stumbles away in shock as Beth reaches out to her.

Juno eventually locates Sam and Rebecca and rescues them from a crawler. She asks Sam what the crawlers are and Sam tells her that they are humanoid people who have evolved to live perfectly in the cave, and that they are blind, using sound to hunt. After this Juno tells them she may have found a way out, but will not leave without Sarah. The others reluctantly agree to help her search.

Elsewhere, Sarah awakens and encounters the mortally wounded Beth, who tells Sarah that Juno wounded her and left her. Sarah does not believe her until Beth gives her Juno's pendant, the one inscribed with "Love each day". Beth reveals that Sarah's husband was having an affair with Juno. Beth, in extreme pain, asks Sarah to euthanize her, and Sarah reluctantly complies. Sarah soon encounters and kills a young crawler, a female crawler, and a male crawler in quick succession while Juno, Sam and Rebecca are pursued by a large group of crawlers. Sam runs ahead but stops at the ledge of a large chasm. She attempts to establish a pulley system across the chasm when Juno and Rebecca finally catch up and try to convince her to turn around; she does not have enough rope. A crawler attacks and mortally wounds her. With her last ounce of strength, she stabs the crawler with her knife which falls into the water below. Juno and Rebecca mourn over Sam's death when another crawler attacks Rebecca; tearing her stomach open and eating her intestines. Juno escapes over the ledge and into the water below only to encounter the crawler Sam had stabbed.

After killing the crawler, Juno climbs out of the chasm and is helped onto a ledge by Sarah, who asks her if she saw Beth die. Juno nods. The two cautiously explore the caves until they encounter four crawlers; Sarah and Juno both kill two each. Sarah then faces Juno, and releases Juno's pendant from inside her closed fist, revealing that she knows that Juno lied and that she wounded Beth. Sarah cripples Juno with a pickaxe; stabbing her in the leg. Juno pulls the pickaxe from her leg and turns to face a large group of crawlers while Sarah leaves her behind to die. She hears Juno's screams, which abruptly fall silent.

Sarah falls down a hole and is knocked unconscious. She awakens, scrambles up a huge pile of bones towards daylight, squeezes through a narrow opening onto the surface, runs hysterically and in shock through the forest to her vehicle and speeds off. She pulls over to vomit and when she sits up, she sees Juno sitting next to her; face streaked with blood.

Sarah awakes at the bottom of the same hole. Her escape was nothing but a hopeful dream. She looks upon a vision of her daughter as the screams of the crawlers echo in the cave around her.[3]


When Neil Marshall's 2002 film Dog Soldiers was a moderate success, the director received numerous requests to direct other horror films. The director was initially wary of being typecast as a horror film director, though he eventually agreed to make The Descent, emphasizing, "They are very different films."[4] Marshall decided to cast only women in the main roles, going against the original plan for a gender diverse cast.


Filmmakers originally planned for the cast to be both male and female, but Neil Marshall's business partner realized that horror films almost never have all-female casts. Defying convention, Marshall cast all women into the role, and to avoid making them clichéd, he solicited basic advice from his female friends. He explained the difference, "The women discuss how they feel about the situation, which the soldiers in Dog Soldiers would never have done." He also gave the characters different accents to enable the audience to tell the difference between the women and to establish a more "cosmopolitan feel" than the British marketing of Dog Soldiers.[5]

The cast included Shauna Macdonald as Sarah, Natalie Mendoza as Juno, Alex Reid as Beth, Saskia Mulder as Rebecca, MyAnna Buring as Sam, Nora-Jane Noone as Holly, Oliver Milburn as Paul, and Molly Kayll as Jessica. Craig Conway portrayed one of the film's crawlers, Scar.[6]


While The Descent was set in North America, the film was shot entirely in the United Kingdom. Exterior scenes were filmed in Scotland, and interior scenes were filmed in sets built at Pinewood Studios near London. The cave was built at Pinewood because filmmakers considered it too dangerous and time-consuming to shoot in an actual cave. Set pieces were reused with care, and filmmakers sought to limit lighting to the sources that the characters bring with them into the cave, such as the helmet lights.[5]

Marshall cited the films The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Thing, and Deliverance as influences in establishing tension in The Descent. The director 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."[5]

Simon Bowles designed the maze of caves for The Descent. Reviews credited Bowles: "cave sets by production designer Simon Bowles look just like the real thing" and "Bowles’ beautifully designed cave sets conjure a world of subterranean darkness."[7][8]

Production of The Descent was in competition with an American film of a similar premise, The Cave. The Descent was originally scheduled to be released in the United Kingdom by November 2005 or February 2006, but The Cave began filming six months before its competitor. Filmmakers of The Descent decided to release the film before The Cave, so they fast-tracked production to be completed by the end of February 2005.[5]


The Descent was released in North America with approximately a minute cut from the end. In the American cut, Sarah escapes from the cave and sees Juno, but the film does not cut back to the cave.

In the 4 August 2006 issue of Entertainment Weekly, it was stated that the ending was trimmed because American viewers did not like its "uber-hopeless finale". Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen said, "It's a visceral ride, and by the time you get to the ending you're drained. [Director Neil] Marshall had a number of endings in mind when he shot the film, so he was open [to making a switch]." Marshall compared the change to the ending of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, saying, "Just because she gets away, does that make it a happy ending?"

The North American Unrated DVD includes the original ending. Recently, the film has been airing on Canada's The Movie Network, which has the original ending. In contrast the American Syfy Channel as recently as August 27, 2010 broadcast the recut version of Sarah escaping, with Juno's spectre appearing beside her in the SUV.

As exhibited on Syfy (Latin America), the Descent retains the original ending, with Sarah awakening back in the cave facing her dead daughter surrounded by the crawlers.

Creature design

Crawlers, as portrayed in The Descent (left) and The Descent 2 (right)
Classification Cave dwelling hominid
First appearance The Descent
Last appearance The Descent Part 2
Created by Neil Marshall (director)
Paul Hyett (designer)

In the film, the women encounter underground creatures referred to as crawlers by the production crew. Marshall described the crawlers as cavemen who have stayed underground. The director explained, "They've evolved in this environment over thousands of years. They've adapted perfectly to thrive in the cave. They've lost their eyesight, they have acute hearing and smell and function perfectly in the pitch black. They're expert climbers, so they can go up any rock face and that is their world." Filmmakers kept the crawler design hidden from the actresses until they were revealed in the scenes in which the characters encountered the creatures, to allow for natural tension.[9]


Director Neil Marshall first chose to have a dark cave as the setting for his horror film The Descent then decided to add the element of the crawlers, describing them as "something that could get the women, something human, but not quite".[10] The crawlers were depicted as cavemen who never left the caves and evolved in the dark. The director included mothers and children in the colony of creatures, defining his vision, "It is a colony and I thought that was far more believable than making them the classic monsters. If they had been all male, it would have made no sense, so I wanted to create a more realistic context for them. I wanted to have this very feral, very primal species living underground, but I wanted to make them human. I didn't want to make them aliens because humans are the scariest things."[11]

The crawlers were designed by Paul Hyett, a makeup and prosthetics creator.[12] Production designer Simon Bowles said that the crawler design had started out as "wide-eyed and more creature-like", but the design shifted toward a more human appearance. Crawlers originally had pure white skin, but the look was adjusted to seem grubbier. The skin was originally phosphorescent in appearance, but the effect was too bright and reflective in the darkened set, so the adjustment was made for them to blend in shadows.[13] The director barred the film's all-female cast from seeing the actors in full crawler make-up until their first appearance on screen. Actress Natalie Mendoza said of the effect, "When the moment came, I nearly wet my pants! I was running around afterwards, laughing in this hysterical way and trying to hide the fact that I was pretty freaked out. Even after that scene, we never really felt comfortable with them."[14]

The crawlers reappear in The Descent Part 2, a sequel by Jon Harris with the first film's director Neil Marshall as executive producer. For the sequel, Hyett improved the camouflaging ability of the crawlers' skin tones to deliver better scares. According to Hyett, "Jon wanted them more viciously feral, inbred, scarred and deformed, with rows of sharklike teeth for ripping flesh." A charnel house was designed for the crawlers as well as a set that the crew called the "Crawler Crapper".[12]


Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald described the crawlers as "blind, snarling cave-dwellers, looking much like Gollum's bigger kin".[15] Douglas Tseng of The Straits Times also noted that the crawlers looked similar to Gollum, being a cross between the creature and the vampiric Reapers from Blade II.[16] David Germain of the Associated Press noted of the crawlers, "[They] have evolved to suit their environment—eyes blind because of the darkness in which they dwell, skin slimy and gray, ears batlike to channel their super-hearing."[17] The crawlers are sexually dimorphic, with males being completely bald, whilst females sport thick dark hair on their heads. They are nocturnal hunters which surface from their caves to hunt for prey and bring the spoils of their hunts to their caverns.[18]The crawlers are carnivores and kill everything in their sight although they had no sight.


The skull of women motif used in some advertising material is based on Philippe Halsman's In Voluptas Mors photograph.

The film's marketing campaign in the United Kingdom was disrupted by the London bombings in July 2005. Advertisements on London's public transport system (including the bus that had exploded) had included posters that carried the quote, "Outright terror... bold and brilliant", and depicted a terrified woman screaming in a tunnel. The film's theatrical distributor in the UK, Pathé, recalled the posters from their placement in the London Underground and reworked the campaign to exclude the word "terror" from advertised reviews of The Descent. Pathé also distributed the new versions to TV and radio stations. The distributor's marketing chief, Anna Butler, said of the new approach, "We changed tack to concentrate on the women involved all standing together and fighting back. That seemed to chime with the prevailing mood of defiance that set in the weekend after the bombs."[19]

Neil Marshall stated in a review "Shauna was pretty upset about it; it was on newspapers all across the county" and cites the attacks as harming the film's box office, as "people were still trapped underground in reality, so no one really wanted to go see a film about people trapped underground...".[20]

Many commentators, including writers for Variety and The Times, remarked on the rather unfortunate coincidence.

Due to these events there was some initial concern that the film's release might have been delayed out of sensitivity for the tragedy but Pathé ultimately chose to release the film on schedule, with a slightly retooled advertising campaign; however, the US promotional campaign managed by Lionsgate Films was significantly different from the original European version.


...When it was released in July [2005], this claustrophobic story of six women who stumble across something nasty on a caving trip got arguably the best reviews of any Brit pic this year.

Variety columnist Adam Dawtrey[21]

The Descent premiered at the Scottish horror film festival Dead by Dawn on 6 July 2005.[22] The film commercially opened on 329 screens in the UK and received limited releases in other European countries, eventually earning more than £6 million in box office receipts.[citation needed] The London bombings in the same month was reported to have affected the box office performance of The Descent.[21]

Based on 164 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, The Descent received an 84% "Certified Fresh" overall approval rating, with the sites consensus stating "Deft direction and strong performances from its all-female cast guide The Descent, a riveting, claustrophobic horror film. In this low-budget import from Scotland, director Neil Marshall has masterfully created a spelunking nightmare, which doubles as a compelling meditation on morality, vengeance, and the depths to which we might go for survival."[23] By comparison, Metacritic calculated an average score of 71 out of 100 from the 30 reviews it collected.[24] On its debut weekend in the US, The Descent opened with a three-day gross of $8.8 million, and finished with $26,005,908. Total worldwide box office receipts are $57,051,053.[2]

Roger Ebert's editor, Jim Emerson, reviewed the film for Ebert's column whilst Ebert was on leave due to surgery, giving it four out of four stars. He wrote, "This is the fresh, exciting summer movie I've been wanting for months. Or for years, it seems."[25]

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times described The Descent as "one of the better horror entertainments of the last few years", calling it "indisputably and pleasurably nerve-jangling". Dargis applauded the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, though she perceived sexual overtones in the all-female cast with their labored breathing and sweaty clothing.[26] Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald thought that the film devolved into a guessing game of who would survive, though he praised Marshall's "nightmare imagery" for generating scares that work better than other horror films. Rodriguez also noted the attempt to add dimension to the female characters but felt that the actresses were unable to perform.[27]

Top-ten lists, 2006:[28]

Bloody Disgusting ranked the film third in their list of the 'Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade', with the article saying "One of the scariest films of this or any decade... Ultimately, The Descent is the purest kind of horror film – ruthless, unforgiving, showing no mercy."[29]

Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer thought a weakness of The Descent was the failure of the writer to explain the evolution of the creature, though he said, "Their clicking and howling, used for echolocation and communication, makes them more alien; this otherness gives humans permission to mutilate them without seeming too disgusting to be sympathetic."[30] Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune thought that the crawlers should have been left out of the film, believing, "Watching those gray, slithering beings chasing and biting the women makes it hard to maintain any suspension of disbelief."[31]


A sequel to The Descent was filmed at Ealing Studios in London during 2008 and was released on 2 December 2009 in the UK.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Fall Frights: THE DESCENT (Film Review)
  4. ^ Macnab, Geoffrey (2005-07-04). "Brace yourself: the British horror film is about to rise from the grave". The Guardian (Guardian Media Group). 
  5. ^ a b c d Clarke, Donald (2005-07-09). "Subterranean sick blues". The Irish Times (Irish Times Trust). 
  6. ^ Listed in the film's credits.
  7. ^ Derek Elley in Variety
  8. ^ Mark Kermode in The Observer.
  9. ^ Millar, John (2005-07-03). "Millar's movie: Shauna loved working in dark". Sunday Mail (Trinity Mirror). 
  10. ^ Moore, Roger (2006-08-10). "Secrets unearthed: Spelunking with Neil Marshall". Orlando Sentinel (Tribune Company). 
  11. ^ Morrison, Nick (2005-07-07). "Descent into hell". The Northern Echo (Newsquest). 
  12. ^ a b Jones, Alan. "The Darker Depths of The Descent 2". Fangoria (Starlog Group). Archived from the original on 2008-06-22. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  13. ^ Williams, David E (September 2006). "Creepy crawlers". American Cinematographer (American Society of Cinematographers) 87 (9): 18, 20, 22, 24. 
  14. ^ Davis, Guy (2006-12-16). "Natalie's a gung-ho alpha female". Geelong Advertiser (News Corporation). 
  15. ^ Rodriguez, Rene (2006-08-04). "Down deep, it's a real fright". The Miami Herald (The McClatchy Company). 
  16. ^ Tseng, Douglas (2005-12-07). "Hold on tight, The Descent is deep". The Straits Times (Singapore Press Holdings). 
  17. ^ Germain, David (2006-08-04). "'Descent' takes viewers into the depths of horror". The Press of Atlantic City (Associated Press). 
  18. ^ Neil Marshall (writer/director) (2005). The Descent (DVD). Pathé. 
  19. ^ Solomons, Jason (2005-07-17). "Review: Trailer Trash". The Observer (Guardian Media Group). 
  20. ^ Butane, Johnny (2006-07-30). "Marshall, Neil (The Descent)". Dread Central. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  21. ^ a b Dawtrey, Adam (2005-10-16). "London Eye". Variety (Reed Business Information). 
  22. ^ Cox, Roger; Andrew Eaton (2005-07-02). "Going out". The Scotsman (Johnston Press). 
  23. ^ "The Descent". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  24. ^ "The Descent: Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  25. ^ Emerson, Jim (2006-08-04). "The Descent". Chicago Sun-Times (Sun-Times Media Group). Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  26. ^ Dargis, Manohla (2006-08-04). "Six Women, a Cave and Some Monsters". The New York Times. 
  27. ^ Rodriguez, Rene (2006-08-04). "Down deep, it's a real fright". The Miami Herald. 
  28. ^ "Metacritic 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists 2006". Metacritic. Retrieved 2009-06-20. [dead link]
  29. ^ "00's Retrospect: Bloody Disgusting's Top 20 Films of the Decade...Part 4". Bloody Disgusting. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  30. ^ Toppman, Lawrence (2006-08-04). "A gripping 'Descent' into depths of horror". The Charlotte Observer (The McClatchy Company). 
  31. ^ Wilmington, Michael (2006-08-04). "'Descent' chills deflated by absurd plot elements". Chicago Tribune (Tribune Company). 

External links

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