The Descent: when a Scottish caver conquered Hollywood
The Descent

Starring a Scottish adventurer turned ruthless survivor, grisly shocker The Descent was a noughties masterpiece

Ten years on from its US release, we celebrate a landmark moment in modern British horror.

Nobody really saw The Descent coming.

A low budget British thriller about a group of female cavers who encounter far more than they bargain for when they venture underground in the American wilderness, Neil Marshall’s subterranean shocker delivered so much more than its ‘chicks with picks’ tag-line suggested.

Released into UK cinemas in 2005 before making a splash in the US a year later, it became a hit with audiences and critics alike on both sides of the pond, and has proven extremely influential for horror cinema over the past decade.

Starring Shauna Macdonald as a grief-stricken Scot battling personal demons as well as something altogether nastier in the murky darkness, it’s a modern classic.

It builds real tension, dread and a tangible sense of panic through sheer claustrophobia and nail-biting suspense. And that’s before it even reveals its most nightmarish hand (no spoilers here).

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The Descent spends a great deal of time investing you in its multi-national, all-female cast before plunging them into mortal danger; making their plight all the more relatable, and you the viewer all the more concerned for them.

What follows is one of the most intense and nerve-shredding experiences committed to film.

A certain centrepiece jump scare is rightly vaunted as one of the most effective in cinema history, while similar night vision camera antics have since been utilised in everything from Spanish chiller REC to video games like Outlast. But it’s the sense of pervading terror that stays with you.

Scenes where characters huddle trembling in the shadows, hoping to remain undetected. Desperate scrambles and races against time. The segment where they frantically attempt to make it across a bottomless gorge.

All the while nerves are frayed, and emotions pushed to the limit.

Protagonist Sarah is at the centre of what makes this so compelling. Subjected to gruesome horrors almost too terrible to contemplate, Macdonald’s heroine emerges as a resourceful, dogged survivor – but one with a dark vengeful edge. Her own mental descent into psychosis and violence is as tragic as it is fascinating to behold.

The Descent

Like all great horror it’s interpersonal tensions and deep-rooted personal fears that heighten the more blatant scares, but offscreen there was little of the angry infighting that plagues its characters.

Speaking to WOW earlier this summer, director Neil Marshall recalled a blessed experience making it:

“With The Descent everything just fell into place the right way, from the right crew to the right cast to the right composer. So creatively it was incredibly rewarding.

“And the fact that people responded to it was even more rewarding.”

Something of a cult and critical hit stateside, the film went on to make well over ten times its budget at the box office, and found an even wider audience on DVD.

Producer Christian Colson went on to Oscar-winning success with Slumdog Millionaire, while Marshall has made his mark as a guest director on two of Game Of Thrones’ biggest, most jaw-dropping and battle-heavy episodes.

Macdonald, meanwhile, has cemented her ‘scream queen’ status with notable roles in a Descent sequel, and ‘werewolves on a train’ thriller Howl.

Ten years on, their gripping work with The Descent remains riveting. Re-visit it if you too have fond anxious memories – and if you’ve not yet had the ‘pleasure’, watch it if you dare.

More:

Neil Marshall on British horror’s resurgence

13 greatest horror movies of this century so far