Ingenious touches help turn Neil Marshall's The Descent into a powerful piece of genre film-making, writes Donald Clarke
One year into the development of The Descent - a low-budget British horror movie in which a group of cavers gets eaten by killer troglodytes - director Neil Marshall discovered that The Cave - a mid-budget American horror movie in which a group of cavers gets eaten by killer troglodytes - had just received the red light. When the boxy, shaven-headed Geordie stopped swearing long enough to consider his plight, he decided it would be as well to proceed.
"They eventually started filming six months before us," he says. "They had all the advantages and we had all the disadvantages. But it occurred to me that we had this more British sensibility: 'We are surely trying to do something bleaker. Let's go ahead with it anyway.' We were originally going to release after them, in November or next February, but then we thought, 'Let's get it out before them. That'll really piss on their chips'."
The Descent only finished shooting at the end of February and opens just three weeks after the first print arrived from the laboratory. Yet nothing about Marshall's picture seems rushed or compromised.
Deliciously revolting and cunningly paced, this is one of the most satisfying English-language horror films to have come our way this decade. The producers of The Cave may - recalling Marshall's elegant phrase - be left with very damp chips indeed.
Neil Marshall will be known to monster movie enthusiasts for his excellent 2002 debut, Dog Soldiers. Financed by an Arkansan spinach millionaire and filmed in Luxembourg of all places, this grimly purposeful thriller pitted a squad of loud-mouthed British soldiers against a rout of 12-feet-tall werewolves. Marshall's new film - whose human cast is almost exclusively female - might be described as a distaff, subterranean version of his first.
"The first idea was just a horror film in a cave," he explains. "And originally the cast was going to be mixed gender, but then it occurred to my business partner that horror films almost never have a female cast. So we made all the cavers women. But, it was important that I didn't make them cliches: either ladettes or victims. I talked to my female friends as I wrote and got advice - basic advice, but it worked. The women discuss how they feel about the situation, which the soldiers in Dog Soldiers would never have done."
THOUGH NOBODY IS likely to mistake it for the work of Ingmar Bergman, The Descent features a depth of characterisation unusual for a film in its genre. The six heroes, drawn from a variety of nationalities, meet up once a year to do something stupidly dangerous.
Did he give his characters different accents - watch out for our own Nora-Jane Noone from The Magdalene Sisters - to help us distinguish between unfamiliar actors in the pitch dark? "Well, yes and a number of other reasons. While Dog Soldiers was marketed very much as a British film, we were keen that this would have a more cosmopolitan feel."
THE PICTURE BEGINS with a white-water rafting expedition, and in the aftermath of that certain tensions between the women are revealed. The following year they meet up in the Appalachians to go caving. Any number of terrible things happen before slimy, subhuman carnivores begin chewing the girls' extremities.
"There are a few hints as to what's going on," he says. "But the whole idea was to go back to the great horror films of the 1970s that I grew up on and loved: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Deliverance.
"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."
Though set, for the most part, in North America, The Descent was filmed entirely in Britain. The exteriors were shot in Scotland, while the claustrophobic potholing sequences were put together in Pinewood Studios outside London.
"We decided early on it was too dangerous and time-consuming to work in a cave," he says. "We all went on a caving trip once together, but there is no actual caving at all in the picture. We built it all in Pinewood and had to be very imaginative. The same little piece of set gets used again and again. Lighting was also 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."
And they never cheated? "Maybe once," he laughs. "But we soon realised that, handily enough, they have lights on their helmets. So when two characters are talking they are lighting one another."
Such ingenious touches help turn The Descent into a powerful piece of genre film-making. None of the innovations impede the picture's desperate sprint towards a surprising, satisfying denouement.
Marshall - whose next film will, he says, be "Die Hard meets Remains of the Day" - is clearly an impressive talent.
Who did he inherit his creative genes from? "Oh, well, I'll tell you my claim to fame," he says, perking up somewhat. "My grandfather was the man who designed the baby on the Fairy Liquid bottle and he also designed the blue star on the Newcastle Brown Ale bottle."
Doesn't that lineage afford him the status of royalty at home in Newcastle? "Well I haven't got the certificate to prove it yet."
The Descent is on general release