In Haunt

By Leonie Rowland 

Neil Marshall, director of The Descent, will be attending Grimmfest’s Monsters and Movies symposium at the Manchester Odeon Great Northern this November 19th–20th. The event will include a special screening of his horror classic The Descent, followed by the Northern Premier of his new film, The Lair, and an in-depth Q&A with lead actress Charlotte Kirk. The symposium is running in collaboration with the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies as part of the BFI’s In Dreams are Monsters series. Mick will also be joined by special guests Reece Shearsmith, Mick Garris, Corin Hardy, Dominic Brunt, Shaune Harrison, Charlotte Colbert, Ashley Thorpe, Ramsey Campbell, and more to be confirmed. 

We caught up with Neil about creatures, crawlers and fear of the dark… 

Neil Marshall 

Could you give us a quick synopsis of The Descent?

Suffering from a massive family trauma, our character Sarah Carter [played by Shauna Macdonald] reunites with her five friends, and the six of them go caving together. What starts out as a fairly traumatic caving expedition—collapsing caves, tight corners—suddenly goes horribly wrong when they encounter sub-terranean creatures living underground. So, it goes from bad to worse! 

It absolutely does! The Descent was actually the film that got me into horror. 

I’m really proud of the film that we managed to pull together. It was a little movie. At the time, there was actually a competition going on. We started making our movie about caving, and then there was a much bigger budget Hollywood movie called The Cave. We had three million, and they had thirty-odd million! Production went very fast. We were shooting The Descent in January/February, and we had it in cinemas in July, in advance of The Cave coming out in August. Now, nearly twenty years later, who remembers The Cave? [The Descent] has made such an impact and scared so many people, and I’m really, really proud of that. That was what we intended to do. 

The Lair is such an energetic, exciting film. What were your reasons for making it?

It was born of covid. Charlotte [Kirk] and I were in Los Angeles at the time, [and] a friend of ours said, ‘I know a guy who has a house in the desert. Maybe we could do a little movie while we’re in lockdown?’ So, the germ of the idea came from doing something in the desert because we could work outdoors and not have to wear masks. My scripts always start with a small idea and get more and more ambitious, and suddenly it grew into being set in Afghanistan, and then it was about soldiers, and then it was about Russian bunkers and insurgents and aliens. I just wanted to make a really fun, action-packed monster movie. I love a good monster movie. That was 100% the intention. 

In both films, we have characters descending into a space, disrupting the ecosystem, and then suffering the consequences. Could you speak about the construction of these spaces? 

A lot of people read The Descent before I made it, and [they] said the journey through the cave was like a journey through a female body. Some of the comparisons were quite interesting. I love the idea that it was actually like going into a human, that the cave was an organic system. Me and the cast went caving before filming, [and] experiencing how dangerous it really is made it very clear that we could never film this in real caves because we’d all die. Your presence there affects the caves. There was only a group of ten of us, but within ten minutes of being in one of these cave spaces, you couldn’t see because the place was filled with fog. It was our breath condensing. That mixture of moisture in the air. When you turn your light of in a cave, there is nothing. If you’ve never experienced true pitch-black, when you can’t see anything, your eyes don’t register anything—I wanted to somehow try and capture that on film.  

With The Lair, it’s a little bit different. The space is a manmade space. It’s claustrophobic but less so. It was playing more on places that are abandoned by humans having an innate creepiness. All abandoned buildings seem like ghost houses of a sort—there’s a sense that the human presence was there and left behind some energy. And it’s usually negative!  

Charlotte Kirk

So, you’ve got human spaces that should be inhabited but aren’t, and then non-human spaces that shouldn’t be inhabited but are? 

Yes. With the crawlers in The Descent, there was always the idea that these were the cavemen that stayed in the cave when the rest got out and started building houses and societies. I thought that was really fascinating. There is the other point of view, which is to look at The Descent as a happy group of creatures that suddenly get invaded by these six women who start killing them. All they’re trying to do is defend themselves; they’re just trying to live their life down there. They’re not bothering anybody until these people infringe on their environment. Once again, humanity messing with the environment—you can’t avoid it! 

It's one of the most chilling aspects of that film, I think—the realisation that there’s barely any distinction between the women and the crawlers… 

What sometimes escapes people is that at one point a little child crawler attacks [Sarah], and she kills the child, and then the mother comes… so it’s really flipping everything on its head. It’s just that, some people don’t necessarily recognise it as being a child. It was quite big for a child [laughs]. 

There’s that gorgeous moment where Sarah rises out of what looks like a pool of blood and makes the same noise the crawlers make. The way you handle monstrosity in both films is very ambiguous. What draws you to making these kinds of monster movies? 

I fell in love with monster movies at an early age. From Frankenstein to The Wolf Man and the Doctor Who monster of the week. Hiding behind the sofa on a Saturday, waiting to see what monster was going to crop up… something about monsters just got under my skin completely. My family are all artists, and my uncle used to draw amazing monsters and creatures [for me]. I was obsessed with mythical or unknown creatures of the night. But then when it comes to being a film maker, you can’t just present something in one dimension. There’s got to be some other aspect to it. [In] The Lair, some poor creature has crash-landed on Earth, is stuck in tank and is being bled dry for its DNA, and then that DNA is being used to infect human hosts. They’re all victims, really: horrible human experimentation that leads to the creation of further monsters. The mythology of monsters has been with us since there was a fire to sit around. We inherently put our characteristics to these creatures. We apply ourselves to them in the dark. 

The Descent

I love what you were saying about creatures in the dark. It’s common in horror for the creature to remain in the dark, but in The Lair, the characters get an intimate look at the monster. Why did you make this decision? 

Because it would give an understanding of what the creature was [rather than just seeing] it as a thing. It was a scary choice to make because it had better stand up! It was a story question more than anything: the creature will reveal secrets. It was a fun scene to do. When you’re making horror films, you do strategically plan moments and concepts that are designed to affect [the] audience, to make people jump or scream… 

The idea that you can conquer something by understanding it is completely undercut by the scene… 

Humans have an inherent need to understand what’s trying to kill them, but it doesn’t necessarily help! 

The Descent has an all-female cast, and the complex but intimate relationships between the characters are given a lot of time. What made you foreground character in a film about the horrors of space and the body? 

When I wrote The Descent, it was absolutely imperative to me that we were going to care about these people. The decision was made to have an all-female cast quite early on in the writing process. It was based on my research into this world of climbers and adventurers and seeing that an awful lot of them were women. I talked to my sister a lot, [and] I talked to other friends to see if it made sense: what they’re saying, what they’re doing, how they’re behaving. My other agenda was that I didn’t want to exploit them in any way. I really fought to make it a non-exploitative thing, even down to the costumes. A lot of it was down to what Ripley and Sarah Connor had done beforehand and wanting to do six Ripleys or six Sarah Connors and treat them with that kind of respect. I was aware that nobody else was doing anything like that, and that was a reason to do it. I’m particularly proud of Sarah and Beth, but Juno’s the one I find the most fascinating. I liked messing with the audience’s expectations of [her]. She can be this fierce fighter protecting everybody, but then she accidentally kills one of the other members and lies about it. She moves from hero to villain to hero to villain throughout the story, and I really like that. 

Any final words? 

It’s so great to be a part of this celebration of monsters. Monsters deserve celebrating! I’m so glad that this event is happening when I’ve made a monster movie and can be part of it. 

The Descent will screen at 6pm, followed by The Lair at 8:50pm, on November 20th, 2022. Tickets for the symposium are available here




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