Thursday, October 28, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Production Design of The Descent

Michael C. here from Serious Film for another episode of Unsung Heroes. With Halloween fast approaching I thought now would be a great time to shine the spotlight on my pick for the best horror movie of the last decade.

I was researching Neil Marshall's The Descent for a post I was writing about horror movies when I was surprised to stumble upon this trivia item:
No real caves appear anywhere in the film.
Goes to show that it's easy to be guilty of the same behavior we so often criticize awards groups for displaying, namely, having a narrow idea of what greatness in a particular field looks like. Despite being a huge fan of the movie, until that moment the brilliance of Simon Bowles' production design for The Descent had not occurred to me.

Of course, if you think about it for two seconds you realize they're sets. Real caves wouldn't be safe, would be impossible to light, would not match the needs of the plot, and would most likely look boring on camera. But Bowles' work is so convincing you don't pause to think about it. All you can focus on is the horrible trouble these women have gotten themselves into.

Horror films live or die on atmosphere. Studios can produce successful comedies that are indifferently filmed, but not horror movies. If The Descent ever gave the impression, even subliminally, that the actresses were actually filming safely on a soundstage somewhere, the suspense would vanish instantly. As it stands the feel of the film is so strong that it's easy to forget it's a horror movie at all. The cave-diving sequences are already nerve-wracking enough. When the horror elements do kick in it is so well grounded in reality that the terror increases exponentially. It's like 127 Hours if James Franco were attacked by monsters halfway through.

Like Buffalo Bill's basement in The Silence of the Lambs or the Overlook Hotel in The ShiningThe Descent's caves are destined to be one of those touchstones of the horror genre. One wouldn't think something as dull as caves could be made so interesting, but I can vividly recall the various twists and forms the tunnels took as the women descended deeper and deeper into the Earth. From the putrid nest of the creatures to the chasm the women attempt to cross via the cave ceiling; from the huge, yawing entrance to the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel where poor Alex Reid gets stuck, every stage of the journey has its own distinct personality. Not bad considering roughly half the screen is pitch black most of the time.

The theme of this series is shaping up to be the showy versus the subtle. It's already come up with costume design and special effects. The design of this movie is another example of work that does the job without calling attention to itself and has therefore gone overlooked. So here's to the production design of Simon Bowles along with the art direction of Jason Knox-Johnson. Considering how much junk horror clogs the multiplexes, their contributions to one of the few truly effective horror films of the last decade should not go unrecognized.


Unknown said...

this is indeed one great movie, enjoyed it immensely; I never saw the sequel :P

Michael said...

I didn't see the sequel either. I didn't see the point.

I am however curious to check out Neil Marshall's Centurion when that hits DVD soon. The guy has a gift for B Movie material. Also, Michael Fassbender is front and center so how bad could it be?


i feel a little bad for the grade i gave this movie at first... i see horror movies so irregularly that i was judging it less on how well i thought it was made than that how i reacted to it. Even a few months later I was like "damn that was a good movie" but it was really hard for me to sit through -- because being that scared is not my idea of fun...

i realize people who like horror feel the opposite. that being scared is totally fun.

but i still remember VIVIDLY the first (or was it second?) kill in this movie and how freaked out i was for the rest of the movie as a result.

Glenn said...

Yes! This was on my ballot for Art Direction category the moment I left the cinema. And, yeah, probably was the best horror flick of the decade.

Glenn said...

Oh, as for the sequel? It has some strengths, but mostly just reiterates the original and then completely collapses towards the end.

Of course, the entire idea of a sequel totally negates the original's ending (well, not the US one, but the international one) so it was already on unsteady footing to begin with.

SVG said...

Instead of "touchstones", I read it as "tombstones of the modern genre". I have Halloween on the braaaaiiiin.

Great article! I love this series.


SVG -- i love this series too.

Michael -- you know what's weird. I never once thought "sets" while watching this either. and of course, reading your piece it is like DUH. and I love all the readings of the movie as vaginal terror as well.

Jason Adams said...

Add me to the chorus of people who never thought "Set!" while watching this movie... and I've seen this movie a dozen times by now and never once thought that so I'm actually worried that says something about me at this point. Neil Marshall bamboozled me!

Terrific piece, Michael.

As for the sequel I'll pretty much echo all Glenn said. In a superficial less-effective way the sequel taps into some of what made the original work and there's some lingering power - the monsters are great creations, the caves are a spectacular setting, and Shauna McDonald is a really good final girl - but everything's seriously over-lit and just kind of redundant. They should've thought outside the box; there were interesting places they could've gone.

Bah to all the breathe I've wasted on missed horror opportunities!

Dale said...

I read somewhere that The Cave was filmed in a real cave, but IDK how they would've pulled that off.

They were talking about the production design for the caves in the Making Of featurette on the The Descent DVD, if you're interested.

OtherRobert said...

They're all manufactured sets? But...but...::head explosion::

Wow. So the only bad part of the film is the horrible ending chop in the US release that ruined the intentions of the film and opened it up for an unneeded sequel? Good to know.

Michael said...

Thanks for the compliments. Glad to know some people are enjoying are the series. I confess that I do wonder sometimes if I'm not boring people to tears.

I forget to ask but I am always looking for new ideas. Suggestions are always welcome.

Andrew R. said...

My Pick for Best Horror Movie of Last Decade: Let the Right One In

But The Descent's excellent. I really hate the US ending, but the film itself seriously played on my dislike of caves. (Or any physical activity that involves wearing an oversized backpack.)

Anonymous said...

Excellent article about a genuine unsung hero.

Couldn't have made this movie, or any of the others, without his invaluable creative input and support.