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The Descent: Interview with Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall loves horror movies. So when he was crafting his second film, he drew on a trio of movies that had scared him. From

Deliverance

he took an adventure gone wrong; from

Alien

he took a monster and a sense of atmosphere; and from

The Shining

he took the terror of losing one?s mind. He then grafted a chick flick scenario with horror film trappings to come up with

The Descent.

The Descent concerns six women with a passion for extreme sports. To distract one friend from her recent loss of a husband and daughter, the women set off on a caving expedition.

The Descent refers not only to the physical journey the women take down into a subterranean cave, but also to the emotional plunge they take when things go horribly wrong.

Initially, Marshall hooks us with the intense claustrophobia of being deep below the surface in dark, dank caves that have never been explored before.

NEIL MARSHALL: I deliberately made the caves awkward, made it difficult to get the camera into the caves. I thought that would help set up the idea that it was a small awkward space.

As the passageways get smaller and smaller, audience members may find that they have a difficult time breathing as they empathize with the plight of the women.

And Marshall effectively ratchets up the tension at every turn.

NEIL MARSHALL: What I set out to do was to make the cave itself a threat, building suspense in the cave. There's so many ways that you can die down there, there are so many threats and challenges whether it be claustrophobia or drowning or heights and I thought let?s milk that for all it's worth.

And milk it he does. But Marshall felt that he could only take the challenges of nature so far before he would have to let the story evolve into something else.

NEIL MARSHALL: Then when you think things can't get any worse they do and they get so much worse because it was a survivalist film that I wanted to make I thought let's give them something to survive against.

So the women discover disturbingly human creatures dwelling in the darkness.

NEIL MARSHALL: I wanted to make them as human as possible because applying human logic or human behavior to something as savage as these creatures makes them all the more terrifying because they?re operating on the same wavelength as you and you know how conniving humans are and it inherently becomes scary.

Marshall also tweaks audience expectations when it comes to his monsters.

NEIL MARSHALL: This isn't about six cavers being attacked by savage monsters, this is a film about a happy society of savage monsters being attacked by these girls because they kind of mete out as much terror and pain as the crawlers ever do.

In the best horror tradition, Marshall also discovers that sometimes the scariest things are what people are capable of doing to survive.

NEIL MARSHALL: The main drive for me was exploring what the characters were capable of in order to survive and their regression and descent into savagery, and they become primal. They become like cave women at the end of the film because their instinct for survival is so strong.

And the end of the film is something that has been a topic of discussion because Marshall has altered the ending from the original British release, truncating it by about a minute and changing the fate of one of the characters. Although I prefer the bleakness of the British resolution, the American ending serves up a horror kicker that's still effective. And it provokes the kind of response that Marshall really enjoys.

NEIL MARSHALL: I think it's a sadistic streak that I do really like watching audiences scream and shout and reacting very audibly to the film.

The Descent delivers a top-notch horror ride that builds tension with brutal effectiveness and it's not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. There's no self-reflexive jokiness here, just a primal tale of survival as Marshall takes us down into hell and provides no escape routes. Let's just call it a chick flick for people who like a high body count.

The Descent is rated R for strong language and graphic violence.

Companion viewing: Dog Soldiers, Alien, Deliverance -----

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