the art of ending things

How The Descent Ended Up With Two Famously Bleak Endings

Writer/director Neil Marshall breaks down his horror film’s alternate conclusions — and which one he thinks is the worse fate. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos Courtesy of Neil Marshall

“Six beautiful women go spelunking” isn’t necessarily the premise you’d expect to result in a near-perfect horror movie, but The Descent doesn’t really play within the bounds of expectations. The B-movie goofiness of its premise belies a depth and thoughtfulness. Neil Marshall’s sophomore feature isn’t just about six friends getting lost during a poorly planned caving expedition, it’s also a cutting exploration of trauma and grief, fractured relationships, self-preservation, and that phenomenon whereby a part of the human race secretly lives in caves for thousands of years and evolves to be able to survive underground by subsisting on the flesh of their above-ground counterparts.

I first saw The Descent in 2006, and came back to it for years, riveted by its bold storytelling, unshakably haunting visuals, and unapologetic knockout of an ending. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, protagonist Sarah (Shauna McDonald) loses her husband and daughter in a horrifying car accident, meets up with her friends (one of whom, it’s strongly implied, was sleeping with her husband before his death) for a caving expedition meant to “take her mind off things,” and gets completely lost in an unexplored subterranean system. From there, the atrocities only continue to pile up: The terrified women encounter the aforementioned murderous cave-people; the friends slowly begin to turn on one another as pack leader Juno’s (Natalie Mendoza) dark secrets are revealed; they’re forced to consider mercy-killing; all but Sarah die bombastic, violent deaths; and Sarah descends entirely into her own madness. Ultimately, The Descent functions as a horror movie on multiple levels, a sort of Jenga tower of terror. It should feel overstuffed and implausible, and it’s a testament to Marshall’s vision that it doesn’t.

That vision carries Marshall all the way through to the end of the film, which, in its initial form, is balls-out bleak, the sort of stake-in-the-ground conclusion that’s rare in modern horror. We watch Sarah stab the traitorous Juno in the leg and leave her to die, finally escape the cave, race to her car, encounter a ghostly apparition of Juno, vomit, then wake up back in the cave — where, it’s made clear, she’d actually been all along. The final, indelible shot shows a feral Sarah completely dissociating, hallucinating a vision of her dead daughter sitting in front of a birthday cake, as the cave-people close in on her. This was the ending that was shown to audiences around the globe during The Descent’s initial 2005 release, but when it came time to screen the film in the U.S. in 2006, Lionsgate asked Marshall if they could lighten things a bit by chopping off the scene showing Sarah trapped eternally in the cave and instead make it seem like she did, in fact, escape. As a result, the American ending is far less interesting and, depending on your perspective, not even necessarily “happier”: Sarah sees Juno in the car, vomits from the trauma, and then we get a brief shot of her from above, bloody and screaming.

The two endings have long fascinated horror fans, who have been dissecting the discrepancies — and the specific reasons behind them — for more than 15 years. After The Descent’s finale made it onto our years-in-the-making ranking of the 101 greatest endings in movies history, I reached out to Marshall to get the full story behind the alternate conclusions and his take on the film’s eventual sequel (the one that completely ignores both of the endings that preceded it).

I’d never actually seen The Descent sequel until this week.
Well, you don’t want to bother with that.

When I watched it, it really just threw into relief how well-done your movie is.
For my money, the sequel was totally unnecessary. The first film resolves itself, whichever ending you choose. It wraps it up in a way that was bleak, whichever way you cut it. The second film began and it didn’t pick up from either ending.

How did it end up happening if you weren’t onboard with it?
I didn’t own the rights. That was the price of getting the first film made. Pathé Pictures had the rights to the movie and were going to make a sequel regardless.

Did they even consult you? [Marshall is credited as an executive producer on the sequel.]
They initially consulted me, and my advice was, “Don’t make a sequel.” And they were like, “We’re gonna do it.” And I was like, “Okay, if you’re going to do it, try to do it right and be honorable to the first film.” I suppose maybe it was my own stubbornness. Anif you’re going to do it I don’t want anything to do with it” kind of thing. I originally tried to guide it a bit, but most of my advice was ignored, so I was like, forget it.

The sequel takes it for granted that she does, in fact, escape. I do think that both of your Descent endings could potentially be read as she doesn’t escape, right? Because when we get that flash of her from above, it looks kind of like she’s back in the cave.
I haven’t seen it for a long time, but that’s not a shot of her in the cave — it was taken in the car. But it’s very similar to the shot in the U.K. ending, which does go back to her being in the cave. She does escape in the U.S. ending, but to my mind, her escaping at the end is even more bleak than her losing her mind and being with her daughter in the original ending. After what’s happened to her, and what could happen to her, surviving an incident where all her friends are killed — there may be blame laid upon her, she may end up in prison! Psychologically, she’s screwed. All her family and friends are gone, in the most horrendous fashion, some killed by her hand. It reminded me of the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: She survives, but she’s clearly out of her mind with fear and madness. So I don’t see it as being a happy ending at all, having her get out of the cave.

Before we dig into these endings, can you tell me about why you decided to make this film in the first place?
It came as a response to making [2002’s] Dog Soldiers, which, although it’s a gory and scary horror movie, it’s also played quite tongue-in-cheek. To this day, I can’t remember who it was, but one of the reviewers said, “This is all very well, Brits out there making horror movies, but when is a Brit going to make a really scary horror film again?” I felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down. I was set in my task to just create the scariest movie I possibly could.

I was living outside of London at the time and I went and pitched a movie to [producer] Christian Coulson, which was a zombie movie on an oil rig — a feature-length version of my film-school graduation film. And he said, “I love it. But there’s no way we can afford to do it. It’s too epic. If you have any other ideas, come back with them.” I left the office, I got on the train, and on that three-hour journey home, I came up with The Descent. And somewhere along the way, the idea of the caving trip came into it — and then the claustrophobia, the creatures, all of that fell into place. By the time I’d got back to Newcastle, I wrote the treatment and sent it to him the next day. And he was like, “I love it. Let’s make it.” Other ideas came along after — my fiend and co-producer on the film suggested, “What if it’s all women?” And something clicked.

What were you trying to convey with the character of Sarah and her arc?
It was about a literal descent into madness. What does it take for somebody to go insane? How far can you push them? What levels will people go to to survive? And how friendships and relationships fracture in these circumstances. I was inspired by films like Deliverance, where people start turning against each other, humans versus nature, these elements of survival that I love in movies. With Sarah in particular, it was, How much can we strip away her sanity, bit by bit, where, by the end of it, you wonder how much is in her head and how much is real? We left some of that ambiguous.

What were you keeping ambiguous?
There’s a moment towards the end, when she climbs out of the blood pool, and it’s this really primal thing — she’s covered in blood and holding a bone. Real primordial stuff. She screams, and we cut to Juno and the others listening, but the scream they’re listening to is the sound of a crawler. And it’s a direct cut, so it’s like, are we’re saying, from their POV, Sarah is the enemy, [she’s] the creatures? Or is it just a cut and they’re listening to different things? People have read into that for sure.

Wow, I’ve never watched the film that way. I always just assumed the creatures were real.
It was never written with that in mind. It just kind of evolved through the making and editing of the film, the scoring of the film, and watching it with an audience and seeing their feedback. People have since written theses on the film’s hidden meanings. We interjected all of these teasers and hidden meanings along the way just to suggest that kind of thing. And there was, in an earlier version of the beginning of the film, a scene in the hospital where she looks along a corridor and sees a crawler scuttling along the corridor. For the question — “Are the creatures real or a figment of her imagination?” — that made it way too obvious that they were [figments]. So we nixed that idea and wanted to make it more literal, but still leave hints of the former version.

There’s a lot to mine in the movie about grief and loss, and I’m curious if they were informed by your own experiences.
I can’t say it was based on my own experiences, but rather a writer’s imagination of how grief affects people. I kept asking female friends to read it and let me know if it sounded like real women. It was really important.

What kind of feedback did they give you? Did they ever say, “A woman wouldn’t say or do that”?
Yeah. Somebody said, I can’t remember who, maybe Emma [Cleasby], who was in Dog Soldiers: “Women say what they feel, not what they think, primarily. Not as a rule, but think of it from that point of view — feeling versus just thinking.” I thought, That’s really interesting. She also said that the cave is representative of a female body, and each of the chambers is a different part: the stomach chamber, the lungs chamber, the menstrual chamber, with the blood. Then there’s the white guys crawling around inside this body. The journey through the cave is a journey through the female body. I didn’t intend it that way, but I was like, “Okay, you see that?! This is interesting! How can we explore that?”

I was reading some of the reviews at the time, and Manohla Dargis at the New York Times seemed to like it, but did mention that she felt the women were a bit sexualized. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I’m curious about what kind of thought you put into that while making it.
Wow, I can’t say I’ve read that. I find that bizarre and fascinating. That was certainly never deliberate on my part — I was actually arguing with the executive producers, particularly one who was French and was pushing for a scene where they’d come to a pool and strip off their clothes and jump in. I was like, “If that’s the movie you’re making, I quit now.” We made a point of their costumes being, okay, a bit more figure-hugging than boiler suits, but they were full-bodied and not gratuitous. The only one I suppose is Juno’s cut-off wetsuit thing, but that was a pastiche for Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. Beyond that, I tried to completely desexualize the whole thing. Even the affair — none of that was onscreen.

Okay, let’s dig into the endings. In your mind, where does the ending begin?
I think it’s when she slides down the last hole and knocks herself out. Certainly there were two films that inspired it, very heavily: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Thing. In Brazil, somebody finds happiness in going completely insane, as opposed to the grim reality. I robbed that one wholesale with the original ending: She loses her mind, but she finds her daughter. That brings her a degree of happiness, which she’s not gonna get if she escapes from the cave.

So that’s the happier ending, for you, to have her stay and lose her mind.
I think so. Not for us, but for her.

In that ending, do you assume she’s going to die shortly therafer?
Yeah. She’s either going to starve to death or fall off a cliff or get attacked by a crawler. But she’s with her daughter. That’s what mattered most to her.

At what point on your three-hour train ride did you come up with the ending?
The script took me on a journey. I didn’t start it knowing how I was going to finish. It evolved as I was writing it to resolve in that way. I knew I wanted a bleak ending; to make the scariest film I possibly could, as dark as we can go. It wasn’t going to be a triumphant escape from the cave.

Is it impossible to make a truly frightening horror movie without an unhappy ending?
No, I don’t think so. A lot of the great ones do have bleak endings, but there are plenty of others that are … maybe “happy” is the wrong word, but more uplifting or satisfying.

I do think you rarely see, especially now, a totally bleak horror ending.
Yeah. And if any genre should be allowed to have bleak endings, it should be horror. So many of the great ones that I love — American Werewolf in London, The Thing, The Fog — have great bleak endings.

Did it ever cross your mind while making the film that you’d have to change the ending?
No. It never crossed my mind. At that time, it was great to have that freedom to make the movie I wanted to make. And the last shot of the film, with her staring at her daughter, was the last scene we shot of the film. It was like, “Great, we’ve done it, that’s the ending, boom.”

What was your direction in that scene to Sarah?
I told her I wanted to see a glint — not of a smile, but of happiness in her eye that she was with her daughter again. She gave me just enough.

In those last 15 minutes or so, her performance is so incredible to me. She completely changes her physicality and becomes this feral creature. How did you guys achieve that?
It certainly helped to dunk her in a pool of blood for a day. That brings something out of you, when you look in the mirror and you’re this beast of blood. [Laughs.] I think also, we shot the film pretty much in story order, so as each character died, they left. It was literally down to her on the last day, and Molly, who plays her daughter, comes back for the last shot. All of the stuff she’d gone through had built up, and she knew exactly what point she was at in the movie.

Why did you choose not to have Sarah and Juno address the affair directly?
Well, once its revealed, the characters don’t have an opportunity to sit down and have a chat about it. Sarah finds out two things: Juno was having an affair with her husband, and he’d given her this necklace as a gift; and she finds out that Juno left Beth to die. At that point in the story, she’s like, Once I see her again, it’s not time for words. It was show don’t tell. Showing her the necklace meant she knew about the husband and about Beth. It was like, Ah, okay. 

Was it always the plan to have Sarah kill Juno?
I’d have to go back through the drafts of the script, but I think it was always the case that she was going to turn on Juno at some point. And not to kill her directly, but leave her to die.

I think in a court of law they might think it’s direct.
Probably the same thing, yeah.

At what point were you asked by Lionsgate to change the ending for American audiences?
The whole turnaround of the film was very quick. We shot the film in January and February, and it was in cinemas in the U.K. in July. That was six months later. Which is very fast. The reason we rushed it out is because we heard about this other film called The Cave; there hadn’t been any cave movies for years, and suddenly two come along. Theirs was the much bigger budget, bigger stars, all of that. We thought we’d get stomped on by this bigger movie. So we had the opportunity to rush the release in the U.K. and get it out two or three months before The Cave. Lionsgate was more hesitant. [The U.S. release] was always going to go after the U.K. release anyway, so they said, “Let’s see what happens.” As it turned out, [the U.S. release] was essentially a year later. Lionsgate did some test screenings for their release. It scored high, but at one point, somebody had gotten a comment: “Oh, the ending is really depressing.” Somebody then said, “What if we just trim a minute off the film, and she gets out, and we end the film there?” And they tested it again, and the results were even higher, in the 90s or something.

They were ecstatic, but they didn’t have the right to cut the film. So they had to come to us and say, “Look, we’ll release it no matter what, but we think it’ll perform much better with this new ending.” It had already been released globally. It was already out on DVD in the U.K., and anybody with a multi-region player in the States could have ordered it off Amazon and watched the real ending if they wanted to. It was only in the U.S. and Canada that they hadn’t seen it yet. We played it at Sundance that year, I think with the original ending, as I recall, but whatever the case — they said, “Can we do this cut?” And we said, “Well, okay, but in return, we want a 3,000-screen release.” And they agreed to it. So we thought, “What the hell. Let’s go for the bigger release.”

The bottom line was, if anybody wanted to see the original ending, they could just go on Amazon. But then it was released [on DVD and streaming] in the U.S. with the original ending as the “uncut version.” So I don’t even know if you can find the cut version anywhere! The cut version doesn’t really exist now.

I think it’s on YouTube, but barely.
Something like that. But the most widely available version is the complete U.K. edition.

What was your reaction when they said they were going to add your ending back on again?
I was like, “Fine! Great! It’s back to the way it should be.”

Were you bothered by the initial request, from an artistic standpoint?
Initially I was bothered. I think I voiced the same opinion I do now: You think it makes it happier that she’s escaped after her friends and family have died? I don’t buy it. That’s test audiences for you. It definitely would have [bothered me] if it were never going to get released in its desired form. I was living in the U.K. at the time; my world was the U.K. We’d had that ending, and everything was rosy. So I was a lot less precious or concerned about what U.S. audiences were going to see, because I wasn’t going to be sitting there with them watching it. So I didn’t lose any sleep over that, really. I wasn’t going to be so precious about it like, “It’s my ending or no ending!” and get 20 screens in the U.S. because of it. It’s a business, and I wanted everybody happy, including the fans. I wanted as many of them to see it as possible.

As much as they could have done, they didn’t write a new ending or add a new ending on. It was literally, they clipped 30 seconds off the end. It makes a difference, but it wasn’t rewriting the whole movie. So I could live with it.

Was there any part of you that thought, “Maybe they’re right and this is too bleak for Americans”?
No, I didn’t think that. Certainly, my attitude then was that it was a cliché that Americans wanted happy endings all the time.

So you don’t personally think American audiences are weaker in that sense than the larger international audience?
I don’t. Look at something like Se7en. At the end of the day, Se7en’s got an incredibly bleak ending. And it’s an amazing hit movie. I think the best way is not to treat audiences like they’re dumb, because they’re not. They know their shit.

Where do you think that belief originated — this idea that Americans need to wash a movie down with something more cheerful?
I think the proof is in the pudding in some respects. Cheerful films do well. The term “Hollywood ending” has been around for some time. I guess it must have originated from a concept long ago. But I think maybe the ’70s started to change that, a bit. And the films coming out around that time invited a more cynical approach. Audiences have adjusted with that.

Did the attention that was paid to the two endings surprise you? People have been talking about it for years.
Yeah! It does seem to be quite a conversation point. But at the end of the day, people are talking about the movie still, which isn’t a bad thing. If people want to analyze the endings, that just adds to the overall analysis of the movie, and I welcome that. I love it. I think it’s fascinating: “Which one’s the bleak ending, which one’s not?”

Did you and do you still pay attention to the discourse around it?
Every so often I get approached by somebody doing a college thesis on it, and I’m always interested to see that. And a few books have had essays about it. I’ve never had anybody write about my work in that way before. It makes me proud that people could be bothered.

Is there anything you think people have missed entirely?
I don’t know if everybody understood what the creatures were about. And how they’re meant to be there. My whole theory with them was that they’re the cavemen who stayed in the cave. If humans lived in caves, and the majority of humanity, at some point, left the cave, these ones went into the cave. Thousands and thousands of years ago. And they’ve evolved to live there instead of in houses, like the rest of us.

And you always considered the ending totally conclusive? It never occurred to you to leave it open for revisiting the story?
I didn’t see how you could. She’s trapped underground, nobody knows where she is, she doesn’t know where she is. She ain’t getting out of there. Where do you take the story?

The thing that bugged me most about the sequel is that they bring this super-traumatized woman right back to the source of her psychological breakdown. I couldn’t get past that, and I felt like it was a really easy script solve to instead just make her want to go back.
That was one of the big issues I had with it. You have to compel her to go back to the cave. That’s the only way it’s gonna happen. They were like, “Uh, what if she’s lost her memory?” I was like … [Sighs.] Even if she lost her memory she’s gonna be like, “I don’t want to go in a cave!” One idea I pitched was, what if a local child had gone missing in the area of the cave, and she’d be compelled to go back to save a child? I would get that. [But in the sequel] she loses her memory, and Juno is miraculously still alive and loses her pants, for some reason. She’s in shorts for no obvious reason. There’s some oddities, for sure. The only real way to take on that story [again] is that, in the first film, they find a miner’s helmet. Some people have suggested I do a prequel about the miners, with a totally different bunch of characters. You could do something along those lines.

Were you ever worried that the sequel would diminish the first movie?
I think it doesn’t take away from the first movie. It’s okay. It would be better if it was amazing, but it’s okay.

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How The Descent Ended Up With Two Famously Bleak Endings