The Descent

The Descent (2006)
Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Cast: Shauna MacDonald, Natalie Mendoza
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Video Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Ending, Still Gallery, Storyboards

"It hasn't got a name… it's a new system. No one's ever been down here before."

Director Neil Marshall caught my attention in 2002 when I was lucky enough to catch Dog Soldiers in our local theater. It was a werewolf film I found to be an exciting and unique addition to its genre, in spite of its lower budget which caused it minor problems throughout. Last year, with the release of "The Descent," I found myself at the same theater in anxious anticipation of the things Marshall could do with a bigger budget and a darker concept. Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed.

In "The Descent," a group of six young women head to an unexplored cavern system to go spelunking a few years after Sarah, played by Shauna MacDonald, lost her husband and young child in a car accident. While trapped and lost underground, they encounter a species of vicious creatures that hunt the girls through the darkness. Nothing about the setup is high-concept and I was a bit worried that I would find an ordinary foray into a tired and overworked corner of the Horror genre. What I found, however, was a unique spin on a tale that many others have failed to tell well because of the many clichés that can make it so predictable.

This movie owes much of its tone and pacing to Ridley Scott's "Alien," but it moves beyond that main influence to present something almost as interesting. The acting is impressive from each of the cast members and there's a lot of care spent in the first act building up the actresses as real people. They're chatty, they get along, and we only see subtle hints of the conflicts that will arise between them under extreme stress. Even more impressive is the movie's reliance on the caverns and the women as the actual monsters in the film. The creatures that prowl the depths are a secondary threat while ego, the darkness, and the unknown are far more devastating to the girls. I was quite surprised that most of the movie is a survival flick that only becomes a horror film with the slow but steady introduction of its creatures. The reason "The Descent" joins the club of great horror movies is because it never collapses under its own weight and it always makes devious, unexpected turns anytime it's presented with the chance to be plagued by a cliché. On top of this, there is a strong thematic undercurrent in the film of the way arrogance will destroy a person and everyone around them. The characters devolve in such interesting ways, that calling this a 'monster movie' or a 'creature feature' doesn't do it any justice.

The video has been quite an ordeal for people who have tried to pick up this Blu-Ray release. If you own a Playstation 3, the disc works as soon as you slide it in. But if you own one of the first generation Blu-Ray players, be prepared to have to upgrade your player's firmware online to be able to watch "The Descent." Don't be too frustrated if you encounter this problem… a few quick steps resolves the issue.

Once you get the movie running, you'll be happy to see that that the video is beautiful in its high definition release. In a side-by-side comparison to the standard DVD edition, the video transfer walks on water and is one of the more significant upgrades that I've seen in HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. In the standard DVD edition, the artifacting and source material is so pixilated in darker scenes that the movie becomes nearly unwatchable on a larger screen. A tense, long shot of the climbers crossing a chasm, for instance, looks awful on DVD and the actresses might as well be made of Legos. On this dual layer, 50GB Blu-Ray disc, however, everything is perfectly sharp and there isn't any distortion in the many shadows and blackness of the caverns. The creatures ooze with secretions, water, and blood that drips across your screen and really turns your stomach. With all of that being said though, the video presentation isn't without a few blemishes. There are scenes in the opening act where the forest floor is an ugly mess. Even displayed in 1080p, the picture is unresolved, leaving you with a shimmering screen door across the screen. These moments are brief, thankfully, but I worry about how this would appear in similarly shot films that take place entirely in a forest. On top of this, the movie was stylistically shot to enhance the grittiness and grime of the film. While this really adds to the proceedings for me, those of you looking to wow your friends with your Blu-Ray player will be less than thrilled with this choice since the upgrade in quality is not as immediately apparent.

The audio is another impressive PCM track from the Blu-Ray format. In a movie that takes place almost entirely underground, it's essential to have a fun surround sound mix that plays with the echoes throughout the soundscape of the caves. "The Descent" creates this illusion wonderfully. The soundtrack is a dark and menacing affair and really heightens the tension and the sound effects are never overdone. When the creatures get a hold of a victim and begin to eat, the gurgles, screams, and tearing sounds will make you squirm in your seat. This is a perfect example of how the sound design of a horror movie can make the images even more effective.

"The Descent" is packed with extras, although I wonder if all of these supplements, even on a 50GB disc, resulted in a slightly lower quality video transfer than was obtainable. For this much content, two discs would've been fine by me as long as the movie looked even better. There are two commentaries: a technical track between Marshall and his crew and a more entertaining, anecdote-filled chat with Marshall and the cast. Even better is the ability with a Blu-Ray release to finally watch the movie while simultaneously viewing interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, concept art and more, much like you can on HD-DVD releases. I really enjoy this sort of visual commentary because so much more can be shown or conveyed in each frame. Plus, you get to see everything right beside of the end result. Finally, I can see why the deleted scenes were deleted but they were still worth the handful of minutes it took to watch them as they added some nice character beats.

Best of all though, "The Descent" is presented with the original ending that was shown in European theaters. I'm sure there will be a lot of debate among fans as to which is better, but I felt that the extra minute at the end of the original UK ending was far more depressing, intelligent, and frightening.

Compared to "The Cave," another recent horror movie involving underground creatures, "The Descent" is in an entirely different league. Its focus on character and its avoidance of the clichés of the genre make it an excellent horror movie as well as a great film in general. Be sure to check it out!