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.

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