Despite the fact that the last few years have seen more than their share of horror movies, the truth is I haven't seen a truly kick-ass horror movie in ages. Which is why watching 'The Descent' was such a pleasant surprise. Scary, shocking, well-modulated and populated with characters we care about, the recipe for success seems so simple, I'm at a loss to explain how so many other fright-meisters continue to screw it up.
The set-up is straightforward, albeit hardly original. Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is mourning the death of her husband and daughter. Previously active and adventurous, she is determined to break out of her depression, and so she leads a group of five friends (including 'Moulin Rouge's Natalie Mendoza and MyAnna Buring of 'The Omen 666') on a caving expedition into an uncharted mine. Needless to say, things will quickly go utterly, horribly wrong. A couple of missteps trap the women below, with no hope of rescue. They're lost and panicked, yet the worst is yet to come when they come to realize that someone (or something) is down there with them... and it's hungry.
'The Descent' combines the sturdiest horror conventions of the past with modern suspense techniques and, of course, some gore. Why it works where so many others have failed is because director Neil Marshall (whose only previous feature was the little-seen but well-received indie 'Dog Soldiers') knows to take his time. This is not your typical MTV slash-fest on speed. As the first 30 minutes or so unfold, little happens. Aside from the legitimately shocking (and highly disturbing) prologue, this could just as easily be a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. But even if the women are, on the surface, all recognizable types, Marshall (who also wrote the script) finely delineates each. We get to know them and, at least as much as a horror film will allow, care for them.
When the gruesome activities do start, 'The Descent' is also refreshing in its respect for the audience. Though of course a mistake or two will be made (isn't that how the worst in life always happens?), these are not stupid people. Their choices follow rationally out of the consequences of each action, and really, if you were stuck in a cave being attacked by god-knows-what with blood dripping out of its mouth, how easy do you think it would be to think calmly and logically? Though there was one specific character who I really wanted to smack the crap out of, otherwise I liked these women. I was always on their side. And that truly is unusual of movies like this, where often we ultimately want everyone to die horribly because they are all so annoying.
Much has been made of 'The Descent's rejiggered ending. The film played internationally with a slightly longer climax -- one that was more nihilistic, but in keeping with the core thematic arc of the Sarah character. This ambiguity was jettisoned in the U.S. for a more optimistic, if less coherent, resolution. Truth be told, neither is particularly satisfying (both are presented on this Blu-ray release). Yet'The Descent' still achieves at least a modicum of resonance because it brings the concept of metaphor back to modern horror. The film's title is no accident -- it represents not only the physical journey its characters will take to hell and back, it is also the emotional abyss that Sarah must ascend from if she is to both literally and figuratively survive. No, 'The Descent' doesn't not truly transcend such lofty ambitions the way such classics as 'ALIENS,' 'The Silence of the Lambs' or 'The Shining' were able to - but at least it tries.
So while 'The Descent' stops short of being a new classic of the horror genre, for just about every second of its 99-minute runtime, I was riveted. Marshall mercilessly exploits many of our most basic fears -- of claustrophobia, of crushing blackness, of murderous forces that want nothing more than to tear us to shreds -- without apology. If nothing else, you can bet I will never, ever go venturing into a cave again.
'The Descent' hits Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. (Note that oddly enough, the "Underground Experience" picture-in-picture video commentary version of the film, which is a complete separate video stream, is encoded in MPEG-2). Going in, I was a bit skeptical. Before diving into this Blu-ray release, I did a quick refresher with the standard-def DVD release, which was merely okay. That transfer looked flat, somewhat soft, and a bit too grainy at times. Thankfully, this Blu-ray edition is a noticeable and superior improvement. Enough that I would rate it as one of the best upgrades I've yet seen on the format thus far.
The source is immaculate. For a film this dark, rock solid blacks are essential, as is a clean print so that we're not distracted by dropouts, blemishes, dirt, and the like. 'The Descent' never falters. I was also impressed with how realistic the image is. I generally hate the over-processed look of most modern horror films, because quite frankly, they are not scary. 'The Decent' never distracts with crazy contrast, ridiculous colors and fake grain to make the movie look more 'film-like." Instead, the realistic approach makes 'The Descent' so suspenseful that it feels like it is happening to us -- no barrier is created stylistically between us and the events on-screen.
All other aspects of the transfer are terrific, too. Colors are rich and supple, but very stable and clean. Chroma noise is also not an issue. The only negative worth mentioning is that while fleshtones remain accurate, outdoor scenes have been bathed in a blue tint, I guess to make the image look more "cold." But once underground, and aside from some use of 'Jurassic Park'-like all-green "night vision," colors retain a very natural look. Shadow delineation is also terrific, and given proper viewing conditions (no bright lights when you watch this one, cheaters!), I could make out fine details even in the dimmest sequences. Depth and detail are also clearly superior the standard-def release, and compression artifacts are also nil. In short, this is a truly terrific transfer.
The excellence continues with the soundtrack. Lionsgate has included an uncompressed PCM 6.1 surround mix, plus a Dolby Digital Surround EX option. The 6.1 track is the real star of this show -- I absolutely loved it.
The film's soundtrack is top-tier for its genre. As horror fans know well, silence is often far scarier than over-the-top, bombastic effects, and 'The Descent' really exploits this. Much of the movie is very quiet -- we'll only hear the scrap of a shoe on rock, the clang of a pick-axe, or the flick of a flashlight.
Dynamics are very strong, with a surprising sense of reality for a low-budget production. Dialogue is also perfectly balanced, which I wasn't expecting -- no volume-matching woes here. Low bass also extends quite deep, and really kept my heart beating.
But it's in its surround use where 'The Descent' really shines. When rear effects finally show up -- usually to scare the crap out of us -- it works. The pinpoint accuracy of directional sounds is excellent. Creature sounds zoom from channel to channel, perfectly matching what is happening on the screen. Imaging is transparent. The minimal use of score, which is largely comprised of ambient sounds (except for key emotional moments, which are underscored by orchestral swells), is subdued yet effective. This is a soundtrack that really delivers a wallop.
Lionsgate has carried over all of the same extras found on the standard-def DVD release of 'The Descent' to its Blu-ray cousin. That alone would be cause for celebration, but since they've also included an even better HD-exclusive video commentary (see below), a slightly different light is shed on this ported-over material. It's still certainly a great batch of creepy goodies -- although whether or not even diehard fans will now want to wade through it all, when instead they can get an even better, more compact version in HD with the majority of the same material -- remains in question.
Anyway, we get not one but two audio commentaries. Director Neil Marshall is joined by producer Christian Colson, editor Jon Harris, assistant editor Tina Richardson and production designer Simon Bowles on track one, and then all of the main female cast members appear on track two, including Nora Jane ("Holly") Noone, Saskia ("Rebecca") Mulder, MyAnna ("Sam") Buring, Shauna ("Sarah") McDonald, and Alex ("Beth") Reid. The first, far more technical track is probably the least essential, because again most of the material (the script, the limited budget, the locations, etc.) is covered in a more entertaining fashion on other included extras. Instead, the real stand-out is the track with the actresses. Though I had trouble telling some of the thick accents apart, it is clear that despite the gruesome fate most of them received in the film, they had a thoroughly great time making the movie. A bit busy, perhaps, but this one is a hoot.
Next up is "Beneath 'The Descent." This 41-minute documentary easily supplants the technical commentary above. It is excellent, covering all the main details -- the original story concept, pre-production, budgeting limitations, the cast, the production and the creatures. It's also bolstered by great behind-the-scenes footage, and the usual interview blurbs with cast and crew. Very thorough. (Note that some of this material is repurposed in the "Underground Experience" HD-exclusive video commentary -- see the next section below for details.)
Also included is a 9-minute interview with Marshall, dubbed "DescENDING." The story behind the film's rejiggered climax is an interesting one. Marshall shot a far more downbeat, less ambiguous ending for the film, which tested well both in the U.K. (where it remained intact) and the U.S. However, a truncated, more optimistic version of the film subsequently tested even better in the U.S., so Lionsgate demanded the change for the domestic release. Both versions are included on this Blu-ray, and Marshall does not seem bitter, just pragmatic, about the studio-mandated change.
The fun continues with about 10 minutes of Deleted and Extended Scenes. The included material is not really essential -- I can see why it was cut -- but worth one watch nonetheless. There is also a 5-minute reel of Outtakes, which are mildly amusing. It is nice to see some levity on-set, as watching the film is such a pulse-pounding experience. (Note that all of the above materials are presented in windowboxed 16:9 video, encoded at 480p/AVC MPEG-4.)
Rounding out this very impressive collection are some promo materials. You'll find Cast & Crew Biographies, a Still Gallery with numerous production and publicity stills, and a Lionsgate Blu-ray promo featuring its first two waves of launch titles. Oddly, no theatrical trailers or other promos for 'The Descent' are included.
'The Descent' is a rarity in today's horror market -- populated with intelligent characters we care about, it delivers tons of scares. It truly is one of the better fear flicks I've seen in quite some time. This Blu-ray release is outstanding -- perhaps Lionsgate's best yet. The transfer and soundtrack are excellent, and the terrific HD-exclusive "Underground Experience" video commentary is the icing on the cake. A must-own for horror fans, and well worth a rental for everyone else with strong constitutions.