It happens so rarely that, when it actually does, it is definitely worth noting. Critics rarely change their mind – at least not a mere four months after their initial contact with an entertainment. No, it usually takes decades of differing opinions and considered scholarship before a hated movie becomes acceptable, or visa versa. But in this case, there is something about The Descent that rubbed this reviewer the wrong way back in August. Maybe it was the loud and obnoxious teens in the audience who were too busy text messaging each other to pay attention to the film. Perhaps it was the lousy projection levels, which rendering most of the movie's cave scenes dark and indistinguishable. It could have been the unbearable hype, a machine that made the film out to be the second coming of horror. Whatever the circumstance, he came out unimpressed and angry at those who would praise this perfunctory, predictable thriller. Amazingly, such a view has now changed. Far from flawless, The Descent deserves credit for being one of 2006's most solid and scary exercises in fear. Something about this new "original unrated cut" DVD warrants the reconsideration.
After a devastating car accident, Sarah's life is shattered. Hoping to help her reconnect with the world, old college chums Juno and Beth decide that their yearly sports outing will be the exploration of an Appalachian cave system. They hope this will help Sarah get back on her feet. With the rest of the girl gang – doctor in training Sam, her thrill-seeking sister Rebecca, and Juno's risk-taking protégé Holly – gathered together, they begin exploring the unknown world beneath the mountain range. An unexpected event leaves them trapped, desperate to find a way out. Then, something starts stalking them, crawling around the crevices, blind eyes alive with hunger, toothy maws desperate for human food. As secrets from Sarah and Juno's past percolate below the surface, the threat inside the cave grows frightening – and fatal. It will take everything the ladies have to survive this Descent into darkness...and death.
Beautifully photographed, loaded with iconic images, and blessed with a level of believability that barely ever ebbs, The Descent is a well made genre effort. Indeed, it is truly the reference-packed horror highlight reel its director Neil Marshall intended it to be. Paying homage to horror favorites, from Deliverance and Carrie to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining, the British filmmaker, equally famous for his werewolf riff Dog Soldiers, has crafted an original take on an old formula. Seasoned fear fans will recognize the old dark house motif rather easily, since the vast majority of the movie takes place in a labyrinthine set of caves as perfectly pitch black as a satanic mass. Add in some unspeakably nasty creatures, an overriding sense of foreboding, and some increasing bad blood between the characters, and you've got a recipe for a wonderfully evocative motion picture macabre. Oddly enough, it's an overall atmosphere and ambience that didn't come across in movie theaters. Since Marshall only ever meant to sketch out his adventure gals, the quick clip dimensions got lost in all the big screen expanses. Similarly, the director also wanted to push the limits of shadows. He purposefully made the movie as lightless as possible, hoping this would render the suspense more palatable. Unfortunately, the energy saving measures of some theaters rendered the scenes unwatchable.
But on DVD, especially in a reconfigured print that has much of the arterial spray – and a major subplot – intact, The Descent finally delivers on all its pre-release publicity. With the subtlety of certain sequences reborn, and the geyser-like gush of blood filling many of the previous R-rated killings, Marshall's movie shifts from an exercise in dread to a fully realized gruefest. Indeed, the faint of heart should be prepared for the last act attack by the "crawlers" – all the wounding merely hinted at in the Cineplex arrives in rich red torrents as eyes are gouged out, limbs are hacked, necks are garroted, and heads belch volumes of vein vodka. Where once the centerpiece stalkers were albino bat-men (and women) with a horrifying shriek and a less than effective predatory style, the digital revamp reestablishes their place as viable villains. In addition, the disconnect between Sarah and Juno is spelled out in a way that this critic doesn't recall from the US theatrical release. There are at least two individual moments that came as a complete surprise; so important to the narrative that he can't imagine he simply "missed" them the first time around. By maintaining the original ending (the "non-happy" UK version) and upping the visual amperage a tad, what was seemingly a single light shining into a big black void experience has been rendered far more frightening with just the slightest hints of approaching horror featured alone the fringes of the action. When you add in the increased character dynamic and the lush look of the landscapes, you get a far more compelling cinematic situation.
It could also be that, on the big screen, Marshall's manic approach to action looses its focus. Several of the fights between the crawlers and our heroines use an overcranked, almost handheld style that when blown up to theatrical proportions creates confusion instead of creepy chaos. But rendered back down to a typical TV size, the sequences come alive with aggression and brutality. Similarly, the smaller version allows you to glimpse little clues that Marshall managed to sneak into the film along the way. The eye is draw to these horrifying hints, keeping the fear fresh and unavoidable. Sure, there are elements here that fail to fully connect – the cave logistics seem more plot convenient than natural, and the opening car crash has little visual or subtextual relevance beyond its certain shock value. But in many significant ways, The Descent deserved much of the praise it received upon initial release. While it is definitely not the scariest movie of all time, or even the last 10 years, it's a much better movie that the aggravating, overly dark experience this critic complained about four months ago. They say it takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. Well, the size of this reviewer's recant should dwarf any others made in recent memory. Instead of being a derivative, disorienting mess, The Descent definitely deserves consideration as one of the genre's most compelling efforts. That's the power of the film. That's the power of DVD.
In a word – stunning. Lionsgate has given the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image of The Descent an amazing amount of cinematic polish. The opening sequences featuring a white water rafting trip and a drive through the Appalachians are startling in their visual perfection. Colors are carefully controlled, as are the levels of light and dark, and details missed even on the big screen are fully visible in this terrific transfer. In this configuration we have one of the best looking DVDs released in 2006.
Here's a secret you probably never knew – The Descent was filmed on a set made completely of Styrofoam. The cast and crew never set foot in a real life cave location. Why this is important to the aural elements here is rather obvious. All the footfalls, all the rock scrapes, all the echoes and atmospheric elements had to be created in post-production. Indeed, when the actors actually interacted with the manmade material, it produced an irritating squeak. So the sound design here is crucial to the film's effectiveness, and again this digital presentation is absolutely pristine. The Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 EX is amazing, loaded with directional elements and channel-challenging sequences. It really amplifies the film's auditory fear factors. Add in the sensational score by David Julyan, which sounds like a combination of Carter Burwell and Bernard Hermann, and you've got a near definitive audio package.
Overdosing on added content, The Descent on DVD has all the necessary bonus features that any fan of the film could ever wish for – beginning with two full length audio commentaries. First up is director Marshall with several of his crew members (including producer Christian Colson, editor Jon Harris, assistant editor Tina Richardson and Production Designer Simon Bowles), and the second features Marshall again with almost all of the female cast (Nora Jane "Holly" Noone, Saskia "Rebecca" Mulder, MyAnna "Sam" Buring, Shauna "Sarah" McDonald, and Alex "Beth" Reid). Making an effort not to repeat himself between the two discussions, the director does a good job of guiding the others through all their anecdotes and insights. The second conversation, given over to lots of jokes and good natured ribbing lets the girls explain their approach to the story. The more "serious" commentary deals with many of the production problems, and how CGI was used to enhance, not replace, the physical feel of the effects. Both tracks are terrific, and do a good job of filling in details about The Descent's unique dynamic. Similarly, a 41 minute "Beneath" the Scenes featurette shows the in-studio set construction, the evolution of the crawlers design, and the occasional emergency that required an inventive solution (like the use of a bathtub to create a small pond).
In addition, we are treated to a series of outtakes (mostly bloopers and practical jokes played on the cast and crew), deleted and extended scenes (almost all dealing with the relationship between the girls prior to entering the cave), a collection of stills and a set of cast and crew biographies. Perhaps the most interesting added feature though is something called "DescENDING" and as the name implies, it deals with the alternative cut of the film. When it first arrived in the UK in 2005, Marshall had created a very dark, disturbing finale that offered little hope for the characters. When it was tested in America, the scene did quite well. But when a truncated version was shown, stopping at a crucial point and suggesting some possibility of optimism for the lead, US audiences really approved. Lionsgate demanded the change, and that's what arrived in theaters back in August. Marshall is on hand to describe the situation, and this nine minute interview offers some interesting facts about the film's many influences (including Terry Gilliam's Brazil?) and his feelings about the ending controversy. It's a nice addition to what is already a well supplemented DVD package.
When he first saw it four months back, this critic would have easily gone the Rent It route, arguing that while some people felt this film was a major macabre triumph, he was rather underwhelmed by the whole Descent experience. In a clear case where a fresh perspective and a definitive DVD presentation make all the difference, the rating now jumps an amazing two steps to Highly Recommended. There is real artistry in what Neil Marshall has managed here, something a rowdy Cineplex audience and lousy projection properties almost destroyed. Viewed as an inventive psychological thriller, an old dark house spook show, or a post-modern meditation on man vs. nature and the unnatural, The Descent deserves the attention of any serious scare fan. While far from a masterpiece, it definitely represents an ingenious and distinctive deviation from your standard horror film.
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