Among his comments on The Descent DVD, writer/director Neil Marshall admits he found inspiration during the writing phase from David Julyan's score for Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake of Insomnia - another sparse, non-melodic soundtrack that was the antithesis of a standard thriller and psychological suspense film; things weren't nakedly telegraphed to audiences, and the score maintained an ongoing sense of unease.
For Marshall 's second feature film, the director engaged Julyan to write a hugely varied score. The main theme, heard in the sublime "Main Titles," is a minimalist lullaby, where the composer uses warm chords to advance a sense of peace and tranquility; the theme's quick slide into melancholy is furthered by the addition of subtle percussion, enhancing the moment when the theme crests, and withers into darkness.
First heard as the women verbally celebrate their conquest over some nasty rapids, the music cleverly conveys existing waves of low-lying distrust between the three women that will bubble to the surface after they become trapped in a massive cave system, and the theme's melancholic shift also signifies Juno's persona: one who needs to reassert her stature among the group by leading the group into physical challenges, regardless if they're skeptical of her choices. (A later cue, "Reunited with Juno," recaps the lullaby and melancholic theme fragment, and reasserts Juno's return as group leader, who now holds a very dark secret.)
Julyan's score is fairly discreet, and the theme reiterations largely underscore moments of loss, deep sadness, and personal torment; the score disappears until the much larger group head for the mountains and begin their descent into a new cave system. "Drive to the Cave" is the first stylistic shift, and Julyan has a distant ticking clock flittering across the stereo image, while a smooth fusion of ambient orchestral and electronic tonalities convey the group's apprehension of the remote trek.
"Into the Cavern" returns the theme, and Julyan emphasizes its first chords, shifting emphasis on melody, percussive reverberations, and a dirge-like quality in sustained sections as the women discover the eerie ambiance of the cave system's massive mouth.
One of the film's pivotal fears is claustrophobia, and "Down the Pipe" covers the group's uneasy journey down a narrow tube that twists into extreme angles, forces the group to go underwater, and set up the inevitable distrust of Juno for selecting such an extreme cave network. An off-kilter, 3-note keyboard pattern is contrasted by guttural rumblings and searing chords - all smoothly intertwined to cover a sense of being swallowed by up a primal maze, whose air is clouded with dust, and walls are sometimes dripping with water and slime.
What's particularly noteworthy about the cue is Julyan's decision to not score the sequence as a montage, with overt rhythmic patterns, an action theme, and the addition of a cool techno vibe, as was done for The Cave. (In fact, one of the few virtues of the dopey 2005 rival production was the Reinhold Heil-Johnny Klimek score that perfectly suited the gung-ho, machismo of the film's laughable characters).
When percussion finally makes its solo debut in Descent, it's hurled at us during the final seconds of "The Tunnel Collapses," placing cacophony after a long stretch of ambient creepiness. Julyan's use of primal sounds also underscores the attacks of the slimy crawlers, which he again either sends to us as one mass of organic percussion, or counterbalances it with tonal textures, pulses, and a gradual surge of brass. (Admittedly, part of the score's design is to accommodate the film's rich sound effects, which convey the caves' atmosphere through high or mid-range drips, clangs, clashes, etc.)
Synth pulses do figure and dominate "Cave Paintings," and the opening of "The Crawlers Attack," and it's the score's lone little sonic ode to John Carpenter's The Thing . (Director Marshall also styled the film's title poster fonts after Carpenter's film.)
The grandest and most powerful cue is the eponymous "The Descent," which underscore's Sarah's flight to safety, and which the director and composer used to hammer home the trauma that's irreparably damaged the film's heroine. Unfolding like a Goldenthal elegy, Julyan gradually gathers all the elements of his large orchestra, and layers percussion accents and harmonics as Sarah drives like a lunatic though the woods; crying, screaming, and eventually unraveling by the roadside before Marshall tricks us, and we're back in the cave and see what's left of Sarah as she dreams of her daughter's unrealized birthday, and left utterly alone.
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Unique to The Descent is the composer's very selective use of full orchestra and its powerful elements, which most composers may have found too irresistible to exploit in a horror score, or would've used because of a studio or producer's influence. Julyan's approach is part psychological and atmospheric, yet he uses classic bits of shock stabs for the film's juiciest moments, and recedes back into his palette of orchestral darkness.
Easily one of the best scores released in 2006.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan