We are closing out March Break month here at Nightmare on Film Street, and I’m certain most of us haven’t gotten the chance to experience the “break” part. If it’s any consolation, vacations aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes, the car breaks down. Other times, you get food poisoning from the seafood buffet. Then there’s the times you watch all of your friends die at the savage hands of an undiscovered society of cave-dwelling bat people. The point is, it could be worse. For this month’s edition of Making a Monster, we’re spelunking into the world of ravenous beasts, the Crawlers from Neil Marshall’s acclaimed 2005 horror, The Descent! Most of the information for today’s breakdown came from the featurette The Descent: Beneath the Scenes, which is filled with fascinating tidbits and stories from the cast and crew.
Cavemen Who Didn’t Leave the Cave
For the inspiration behind the design of the creatures that would terrorize his story’s cast, director/writer Neil Marshall used pieces of his screenplay to connect the dots. The six women trapped in the caverns were to happen upon a series of cave paintings, so why not start there? “They’re cavemen who didn’t leave the cave. They’ve evolved in this environment over thousands of years. A community of them live down here as families, and they thrive in their environment. They’ve lost their eye sight, have acute hearing and smell, and are expert climbers, so they can go up any rock face…These girls infringe upon their world, and their cause is simply defending their territory.”
Makeup effects artist Paul Hyett was tasked with bringing Marshall’s vision into reality. According to Hyett, the director wished to see a hint of Nosferatuin the Crawlers, the name they were given on the set. The two wanted a vampiric look to influence the creature design, but not so much to designate them as actual vampires.
Perhaps separating itself from the usual horror film, the antagonist of The Descent isn’t limited to one monster. In a piece by The Northern Echo, Marshall described the decision to feature a whole community of creeps. “It is a colony and I thought that was far more believable than making them the classic monsters. If they had been all male, it would have made no sense, so I wanted to create a more realistic context for them. I wanted to have this very feral, very primal species living underground, but I wanted to make them human. I didn’t want to make them aliens because humans are the scariest things.”
Your Worst Blind Date Ever
With the basic concept set, Hyett began the process of refining the Crawler’s look. Originally, the creatures had gigantic, almost alien-like eyes. The look made it as far as the screen test, where it was determined it really wasn’t working. As the process went on, the closer and closer the design narrowed down to look more human. Marshall believed the more humanistic the creatures, the scarier they would be. The eyes shrunk down to a more normal size. Their skin began in concept as pure white and phosphorescent, but the effect proved too bright in a film very dependent on darkness and shadows. In turn, the skin was given a “grubbier” redo.
Marshall and Hyett wanted to specifically convey that these “cavemen” had undergone evolution to adapt to their environment. For this, the Crawlers featured very large ears. Similar to a bat, the ears represented their main sense of communication and survival. The creatures’ spines were crafted arched, as what you’d expect would happen spending hundreds of years inside claustrophobic caverns. As the community of Crawers featured both males and females, distinctions were made between the two. The females were given a “witchy, sour look” as Hyett would describe them. In addition to sexes, each Crawler was given unique characteristics from one another. Some were given more brute, scowling looks. Others had ears that were shaped differently. Some were even given more of a “dopey” expression. In all, the final look took around four weeks to refine.
In a move of clever filmmaking, Marshall decided to keep the look of the Crawlers a well-kept secret from the actresses all the way until their first scene was shot, which happened to be the same scene the audience would first see them as well. “I just wanted to see what the effect would be,” quipped the director. Caught on the behind-the-scenes footage, actor Craig Conway prepped for the scene in his full Crawler costume, “I don’t think love is going to blossom from this meeting. I can’t imagine. It’s like your worst blind date ever isn’t it? Imagine if this f***** turned up at your door.” The reaction we see in the film was the actresses’ genuine first look!
Cave Beasts Anonymous
Director Neil Marshall wanted seasoned actors to play the Crawlers instead of dancers, wishing to bring personality to the roles. Marshall tapped two actors specifically he had a working history with – Craig Conway and Les Simpson. Having worked previously with them on his feature debut Dog Soldiers, Marshall wasn’t sure he could convince the two to sign onto the roles of speechless beasts. As it would turn out, they were thrilled with the challenge. “It’s fantastic to play this “undercover actor” I can go out and do what I want, and create something which I hope is entertaining, frightening, and off the wall,” said Conway. “I can sit back and know that nobody on this planet is gonna go ‘oh that’s him, he plays that beast’. It’s great for me because I like that kind of anonymity of it all.”
One advantage of the costume design of the Crawlers was the amount of personality the actors could convey through it, both facially and physically overall. The makeup, which was cut down from an initial five hour application to three and a half, began at the actor’s heads. Once the facial prosthetics, teeth, and contact lenses were in place, a full body painting came next to give the creatures their pale, veiny appearance. The makeup required the actors to be completely shaven from head to toe, a tidbit Conway admitted left him a little red-faced. Even so, the actor loved the experience and relished the acting freedom the costume allowed. “To let yourself go, in something like this, you have to trust your body. Although you have to be conscious of what you’re doing and choreograph certain things, there just has to be a sense of freedom. I think that’s exactly how you can confidently pull of being a ‘beast.'”
The Descent released to great praise from critics and audiences, and still holds as a strong recommend for many horror fans over 15 years later. It was fascinating to learn that Marshall basically allowed the story to create the Crawlers for him, then tweaked their design from there. Creating a whole community of them instead of featuring your typical single antagonist opened many doors for detailed variations physically and psychologically. Not to mention, a whole crew of Crawlers is 10x more terrifying and daunting than just one. While the thought of being trapped in claustrophobic caverns is enough to send many of us into a panic, adding a society of flesh eating bat people really puts the icing on the terror cake.
What are your opinions about The Descent? Did you freak out as hard as the cast did the first time you saw a Crawler? Did we really need another reason not to venture into caves? I look forward to hearing your thoughts over on Nightmare on Film Street’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages!