Remember how Lionsgate held up this movie's U.S. release in order to avoid competing with The Cave? Please. That's like delaying Jurassic Park in order not to compete with Carnosaur.
A year has passed since Beth (Shauna Macdonald) lost her husband and young daughter in a horrific car crash. Hoping to begin to move past the loss that continues to haunt her, Beth joins five of her friends for an excursion into a cave system in the Appalachian Mountains. But things begin to go wrong once the women are underground. A fall leaves one of them with a broken leg. A cave-in cuts them off from one possible exit route. To make matters worse, it turns out that Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the expedition's de facto leader, has intentionally led them into an unmapped cave. And as if that weren't enough, the women soon discover they're not alone. See, there's a reason the cave has remained unmapped. Others have dared to explore it, but they haven't made it out alive, for the cave is home to a species of creature perfectly adapted for hunting in the dark.
I hate having to write plot summaries for movies like this. I find the one you just finished reading somewhat embarrassing, primarily because it makes The Descent sound like your run-of-the-mill chicks and monsters flick, which it decidedly isn't. I won't go as far as some and claim this movie redefines its genre, but I will pay it one of the highest compliments I can think of: this movie works.
Each act of the story plays like its own separate mini-film. The opening half hour, with its scenes of family tragedy and female bonding, plays like something out an Anna Quindlen novel. The midsection, with its ever-escalating series of mishaps, is reminiscent of an adventure flick. It's not until the last thirty minutes that The Descent begins to resemble a conventional horror movie. I know people who dislike the movie because of this structure (they'd rather get to the gore as soon as possible), but I have to disagree. It's obvious writer-director Neil Marshall wasn't interested in making your average splatter fest, with characters whose only trait is being thoroughly unlikable getting hacked to bits by yet another lame variation on the unstoppable killer. He allows the tension and terror to build and build, eventually bringing his characters to such a point that you almost wonder if anything worse could possibly happen to them. It's only then that he brings in the monsters and lets all hell break lose. And the pacing of this chain of events is absolutely perfect. Far too many movies of this type annoyingly move in fits and starts, but that's certainly not the case here; the entire movie is, to borrow a phrase from James Cameron, a suspenseful buildup to an action release. Even though the first act is devoted almost entirely to establishing the characters and setting up the plot, it still moves swiftly, with Marshall expertly using brief scenes and exchanges of dialogue to sketch the women's individual personalities and backgrounds. (My only complaint about the opening act is that any scene featuring six women sitting around a cold cabin drinking beer sets up certain expectations. That the movie doesn't contain a scene that satisfies those expectations in no way diminishes its quality, but I just thought I'd throw that out there.) Things pick up just a bit in the midsection, with the momentum building as the women come to realize the severity of their situation. And the final act is almost relentless; any respite from the terror (few and far between as they are) is a short one.
Marshall has stated that The Descent was heavily influenced by Alien, Deliverance, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It also reminded me of two other great films, although not necessarily in content. The first is Jaws. Why? Much like Jaws, the non-monster stuff here can stand on its own; the first two-thirds don't seem to exist simply to get us to the payoff. The other is Mulholland Dr. Why? Well, there's a certain way of interpreting the events of The Descent that almost makes it play like horror's bastard stepchild version of Lynch's film. But maybe it's just me.
Okay, so if I admire the movie so much, why isn't the rating higher? Well, there's one brief moment that bothers me, probably more than it should. It's the very end of the penultimate scene (i.e., the climactic moment of the American theatrical version, which is also included on this disc). To me it violates the logic of the movie, and doesn't jibe with what follows (it also comes across as a clichéd cheap shock). I thought about it and thought about it until I came up with a valid reason as to why it exists and exactly what it means in terms of the arc of the character involved, but this doesn't change the fact that it briefly took me out of the movie, consequently serving to somewhat dull the impact of the finale. But maybe it's just me.
Viewing The Descent for this review marked my second time watching the movie, so I was able to observe and admire the assured manner in which Marshall orchestrates the various elements. I wasn't a big fan of his debut feature, 2001's Dog Soldiers, but I did think he showed promise as a filmmaker. I think it's safe to say that promise is developing into genuine talent. Hell, any director who can exploit six different phobias in one scene is okay in my book. Then again, maybe it's just me.
The 2.35:1 transfer is, simply put, amazing. That's really all you need to know, but I'll elaborate. For most of the underground sequences, the only sources of illumination are flares, flashlights, and miner's helmets, but this does nothing to hinder the depth or detail of these scenes. Black levels are perfect. Colors are beautifully saturated. Most of the exterior shots have an intentionally cold, somewhat bluish appearance, yet they also look fantastic. I'd venture to say this is one of the best Blu-ray transfers I've seen.
Sound is critical to both the storytelling and effectiveness of this movie, and the sound design is meticulously constructed. Thankfully, this disc's audio, available in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround EX and uncompressed 6.1 PCM options, is just as impressive as the video. Dialogue is always crystal clear. The music sounds exceptional. The low end booms. Surround use and integration is extraordinary. Particularly noteworthy is the fluid nature of the audio. As the geography of the cave changes, shifting from tight and constricted to open and airy, so does the sound, accurately reflecting the sonic impact of the characters' surroundings. From plinking water and shifting rocks right on down to the otherworldly sounds of the cave-dwelling creatures, the audio never fails to impress. You certainly won't be disappointed by the Dolby track, but the PCM track is richer and fuller, with a more expansive soundstage. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Say what you will about how they handle their catalogue titles, but Lionsgate can knock the Blu-ray releases of their prestige titles out of the park when they want to. All of the extras from the standard definition release are included here, and you'll also find several exclusives.
Up first is a commentary from director Neil Marshall, producer Christian Colson, editors Jon Harris and Tina Richardson, and production designer Simon Bowles As you might expect, most of the technical info regarding the production can be found here.
A second commentary features Marshall and five of the female leads (Natalie Mendoza was working at the time). This track is great fun, with the participants constantly cracking wise, but there's also a good deal of story and character information.
The excellent The Descent: An Underground Experience is similar to the In-Movie Experience tracks found on HD discs. Accompanying the main feature is a smaller picture window in which scene-specific behind-the-scenes footage plays. This footage consists of videotaped rehearsals, B-roll snippets, production meetings, makeup and set fabrications, etc.
The Descent: Beneath the Scenes (41 minutes) is an excellent, fairly comprehensive making-of documentary.
In DescENDING-Interview with Director Neil Marshall (7 minutes), the director discusses the endings of the American and U.K. theatrical versions of the movie.
You also get several deleted/extended scenes (10 minutes total), most of which are simply character moments. (I was hoping for an extended version of Natalie Mendoza's jogging scene, but it was nowhere to be found.)
Cast and crew biographies for most of the principals are included.
There's also a still galley, which contains around twenty-five production photos.
A selection of outtakes offers up the usual flubbed lines, practical jokes, and on-set frivolity.
Storyboard to scene comparisons (10 minutes total) for several key sequences are included. These play in a picture-in-picture format.
Caving: An HD Experience (8 minutes) is videotaped POV footage of a crew member's descent into a cave.
The Descent doesn't reinvent the horror wheel, but it's still a damned fine flick, and the superior presentation and wealth of extras combine to make this one of the best all-round Blu-ray releases so far.