Death cave for cuties

Neil Marshall sends viewers off the deep end in The Descent.

TUNNEL VISION Marshall, left, supervises a camera set-up in the catacombs.

TUNNEL VISION Marshall, left, supervises a camera set-up in the catacombs.

“Spiders absolutely terrify me,” director Neil Marshall says, glancing out the window of a Manhattan restaurant that seems to be completely arachnid-free. “Most of the time, they are absolutely still and silent. But they are always listening, always watching, always hunting. Spiders will just sit there and wait, and then...” Marshall’s hand, which had been lying immobile on the table, suddenly scurries like a creepy-crawly across the flat surface. “They strike, and it just happens so bloody fast.”

Engineering moments when the tranquil turns into the absolutely terrifying is something the British filmmaker excels in, and his latest movie is full of unnerving, dread-soaked scenes that relish going from 0 to 60 in seconds flat. The Descent follows six female outdoors enthusiasts who, for their yearly get-together, decide to try spelunking in the Appalachians. As the women move deeper and deeper into the unexplored subterranean caverns, they find themselves hopelessly lost and cut off from their return route.

“For starters, there’s so much mileage you can get out of setting a film inside a cave,” Marshall, 36, says, and the movie certainly milks its setting, real or not (the labyrinthine lair was constructed on a back lot of England’s Pinewood Studios). Indeed, after one character describes the perils of rooting around far below the earth—claustrophobia, paranoia, disorientation, hallucinations—the director then proceeds to subject his heroines to each item on the checklist. “There are a number of ways to succumb to panic and mental confusion when you’re that far underground, so why not take advantage of all that tension and fear? And after you’ve kept the audience on edge for a half hour...” Marshall’s mouth breaks into a rather dastardly smile. “That’s when you make it a whole hell of a lot worse.”

He’s referring to the movie’s midpoint payoff, in which the frazzled explorers discover that they aren’t the only ones down there in the dark. Unfortunately, their new companions—blind, pigmentless predators known as “the crawlers”—are rather hungry for fresh meat, and the suspenseful little thriller morphs into a full-out horror film. Viewers who caught Marshall’s first feature, the soldiers-versus-werewolves showdown Dog Soldiers (2002), know that he’s hardly averse to choreographing monster-heavy mayhem. But even fans of that cult film may be surprised at how relentless the director is in using things that go bump in the psyche to scare the living daylights out of audiences.

“The first thing Neil said to me was, 'We have to make this as dark as possible,’ ” cinematographer Sam McCurdy says, speaking over the phone from his office in North England. “The idea was to use nothing but natural light sources, so you’d have these scenes where 90 percent of the screen is pitch-black and the only thing you see is a character lit by her helmet’s headlamp. It really added to the sense of being trapped. And Neil and I are both big fans of cheesy ’80s horror flicks, so we were already speaking the same language once the crawlers come into the picture.”

Marshall also gave two specific directions to the stage-trained actors he hired to play The Descent’s carnivorous creatures. “They had to move like spiders,” he says. “I wanted them to do a stop-start thing when they attacked, which made them seem even more dangerous. They also couldn’t let the ladies see them beforehand, so that the actors didn’t see the crawlers until the last possible moment. That horrified reaction you see in the film is real. They ran right off the bloody set!”

The rave reviews and good business that greeted the film when it opened in the U.K. last summer prompted suggestions that Marshall had revived the genre’s gore-splattered glory days of the ’70s and ’80s. It also sparked several interesting political readings, notably about how it’s an American alpha female (played by Natalie Mendoza) who leads a group of Europeans into a terminal situation. The director, however, laughs off any larger significance past thrilling the masses. “Really, it’s just Deliverance without the buggery,” Marshall says, giggling. “My only goal was to make the scariest film I possibly could. But when I first showed the script to a female friend, she told me, 'Do you realize you’ve made the first porno horror movie? It’s all about sex! You have a bunch of females crawling through vaginal openings and being chased by little white men!’ ” Marshall starts laughing. “I’d hate to think what was going on in my subconscious at the time.”

The Descent opens Friday 4. Click here for venues.