DESCENT, THE – Blu-ray review

The absolutely most horrific moment of the Neil Marshall directed “The Descent” happens quite early in the film. In fact, it occurs before the monsters crawl from the darkness of the caves. The moment I speak of is when the film’s central character, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) becomes wedged in a narrow ‘tube’ within a cave and is unable to free her arms and move out of her claustrophobic situation. I’ve been in this sort of situation before and I know how frightening it can be to be stuck. Panic sets in. It becomes difficult to breath and rational thought is quickly replaced by fear. She is then freed by Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and facing a cave-in within their confined quarters. It is during this early scene that “The Descent” shows promise and threatens to make the caverns of the film a formidable foe and menacing villain.

Then, the filmmakers introduce the crawlers. These vampiric, man-bat creatures have a very humanlike silhouette, but are a pasty-white skinned menace that is unable to see, but can move about any surface within the cave, quickly and dangerously. The crawlers are teased by Marshall shortly after Sarah and Holly escape their predicament in the collapsing tunnel. Part of the fun of a horror film is the slow reveal and unknowing of the monsters. Once an evil creation is revealed, a horror film loses some of the dangerous mystique that maintains a level of chilling suspense. “The Descent” puts another foot forward in the proper direction by showing a glimpse of a crawler and having it quickly scuttle out of the way of the camera’s lens. It was at this point of the film, that I was starting to believe that “The Descent” was moving towards being a modern horror classic.

It could have been and it should have been. However, shortly after the crawlers are revealed, they start to dominate the screen and any creepiness or unknowing fear based upon these dark dwelling creatures is quickly lost. “The Descent” starts to become a scream fest between a collection of very pretty leading ladies and no longer becomes a film of fear, but a fairly predictable blood bath where the Crawlers slowly reduce the number of girls who still have a breath to breathe. It becomes all too clear that the Crawlers greatly outnumber the lost spelunkers and that it is highly unlikely that many, if any, will survive their carnivorous attacks. There is hardly any suspense of a Crawler coming out of the shadows to score another kill, as the Crawlers are given so much screen time, that you know exactly what is going to happen.

Though much of what happens is telegraphed to the viewer before it happens, there are still a couple minor plot twists that provide alternate means of death and demise for the girls. This unrated version of “The Descent” does place into question the predictability with its alternate ending, as the film brings a heavy question to the viewer on what has actually been seen in the film’s ninety-nine minutes. The unrated version ponders whether or not the main character was imagining much of what happened during the film, or if everything seen actually happened. However, once the viewer can comfortable settle on their feelings towards this ending, the twisty ending starts to feel slightly disappointing.

I enjoyed “The Descent” and felt the first half of the film was brilliantly done. However, once the trapped sequence happens after the first forty-minutes, things start to become mundane and typical. “The Descent” could have done to spelunking what “Jaws” did to swimming in the ocean – after seeing the film, you don’t want to enter. Dark and confined caves would have provided an amazing setting for a horror film, but this villain is forgotten after the Crawlers take over the screen. The cave becomes a whole lot easier to traverse and is no longer much of a danger after the Crawlers attack. This film could have been a classic horror film had the Crawlers appeared briefly during the moments of attack, or as occasionally teasers and jump frights. The film was still a lot of fun, as far as horror films go. The concept was still there and the panicked group of girls gave “The Descent” a very fresh feeling. Typically, horror films are not completely comprised of female characters. If they are, it is usually for gratuitous nudity. Surprisingly, “The Descent” does not contain a single bare breast. My hats off to the filmmakers for braking conventions with this film, but I feel they went off path and instead of becoming a scary movie in a cave, it became a far more common monster movie.

The film is presented in a very nice 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. It is mastered with AVC MPEG-4 compression and formatted for the full 1080p resolution. Colors are sparsely used due to the nature of the film. However, when there is color present onscreen, it is masterfully presented. The green foliage of the film’s exterior scenes during the first act are quite lifelike and deep in their green hues. The colorful outfits worn by the girls show bright reds, blues, yellows and oranges of the transfer. The film is dark, but has great black levels and incredible shadow detail. For a film that takes place mostly in darkness, the video quality is amazing. The source materials used for the film appear to have been in pristine condition. There are a few scenes with noticeable film grain, but this is commonplace during any film with this many dark sequences and when you compare “The Descent” to other films with a higher-than-average amount of dark sequences, it is easy to see this film is actually light in the amount of film grain present. Detail is extremely strong. Even during some of the darker scenes, the textures of the cave walls, the Crawler’s flesh and other items is highly detailed.

“The Descent” was originally titled “The Dark.” This would have been a far more fitting title, as the characters had descended rather quickly into the cave, but remained in the dark for much of the film. This is a very dark film and for most of its length, shadows and darkness populate much of the screen. The lighting is low and if you had to pick a dominant color for “The Descent,” it would surely be black. I honestly would have been quite satisfied with a lesser quality transfer than what was provided with “The Descent” solely because of the dark nature of the film. Credit must be given. “The Descent” is absolutely stunning in spite of the constant barrage of shadow and darkness. Some of the more colorful scenes in the second half of the film are entirely under the lighting of a red flare or a green night-vision camera. Regardless, the film has amazing depth and detail; thanks to some of the best shadow delineation I can ever remember seeing.

Lionsgate has released their best sounding Blu-ray title to date with “The Descent.” The film contains a 6.1 channel Uncompressed PCM soundtrack. I’ve been a huge supporter of Uncompressed PCM since I first experienced “The House of Flying Daggers” and while “The Descent” won’t dethrone that from the top of my list for best sounding Blu-ray titles, it is definitely the best effort from the studio and an above average entry for the high definition format. The visual benefits have been the selling point thus far for the new format, but the audio capabilities of Blu-ray (and HD-DVD) is just as impressive with a solid soundtrack. Many studios have not elected to supply an Uncompressed PCM mix or Dolby TrueHD and I’m happy to see Lionsgate on-board. In addition to the PCM Audio, a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX Audio mix is included for those who cannot utilize the uncompressed signal. English and Spanish subtitles are provided.

“The Descent” cannot be called aggressive because of the nature of a quiet cave. However, the sound mix is quite impressive, with wonderfully detailed audio. The film’s opening whitewater sequence sets the stage for the soundtrack and from that moment, until the closing credits, the film is filled with great sounding moments. Once the characters reach the cave, whether the sound is that of sloshing water or the closing of a lighter, the sound is crystal clear. Bass in the .1 LFE channel is deep and menacing. What is a horror movie without loud and booming bass? Every possible sound that breaks the darkness and quiet caves is delivered through the speakers and all channels help to deliver this sound. When the Crawlers attack, they can be heard in every channel. This soundtrack is just as impressive as the visuals and “The Descent” is easily the best release Lionsgate has presented us with on the Blu-ray format.

Though I do not own the standard definition release, it appears that all of the features from the original DVD release have made their way onto the Blu-ray release and Lionsgate further expands their Blu-ray capabilities with a picture-in-picture supplement that is reminiscent of what Warner Bros. has done on HD-DVD. I have criticized the studio in the past for releasing a few bare-bones titles, but they are definitely on the ball with this one. The Blu-ray release is the Original Unrated Cut of the film and contains the ending that was originally deemed too dark for us Americans, and with the nice amount of extras, “The Descent” is a quality special edition release.

The film contains two commentary tracks, though their ordering is incorrect on the disc menus. The first recorded commentary is listed second, while the commentary that was recorded second is listed first. The first commentary references the second commentary, and had I listened to them in the order they were created, it would have been a nicer experience. Regardless, they are both quality tracks and full of information and insight into the film. The first Director and Crew Commentary is the track that was recorded second. It features Director Neil Marshall, Editor John Harrison, Assistant Editor Tina Richardson, Producer Christian Colson and Production Designer Simon Bowles. The second Director and Cast Commentary features the director and most of the girls that are featured in the film. Shauna Macdonald, Alex Reid, MyAnna Buring, Saskia Mulder and Nora-Jane Noone provide anecdotes and information relating to the film. Both commentaries were worth a listen, though the cast commentary is the more entertaining.

Aside from the two commentaries, the Blu-ray only supplement The Gate: The DescentUnderground Experience offers a third reason to re-watch the film. The Underground Experience provides a picture-in-picture in the lower right corner of the screen that provides making-of and interview vignettes. The picture pops in and out throughout the film and featured a lot of very nice moments. I particularly enjoyed the Crawler in a bathrobe interview. I cannot think of another Blu-ray title that has featured a supplement of this variety. It has been slowly becoming commonplace on the competing HD-DVD format and Lionsgate has perhaps set the bar for a quality Blu-ray release a bit higher with this release of “The Descent.” However, this is not a truly interactive feature, as it is with HD-DVD. This is actually an ‘alternate’ version of the film and the pop-ups are part of the picture.

A number of supplements that do not require you to rewatch the film are also included and take up a considerable amount of time. These are presented in high definition video, more kudos for Lionsgate on this release. DescENDING – Interview with Director Neil Marshall (7:13) finds the director discussing the two endings and offers more background on the two approaches to ending the film. The alternate ending is the ending the director prefers, which is the negative of the two. The two endings both contain a twist and reason for thought. The Descent: Behind the Scenes (41:19) is a lengthy and informative making of documentary that features a lot of face time with the films director. Some of this footage appearing during the “Underground Experience,” but it was still a nice inclusion for this Blu-ray release. There are also nine (9:56) Deleted and Extended Scenes that can be played individually or collectively.

Caving: An HD Experience (8:38) is another Blu-ray only supplement. This bit features a lot of scenery of an actual cave. Caves are very dark places and with the eerie music playing in the background and the occasional sounds of water drops and other cave ‘noises,’ this was actually kind of creepy to watch. Some of the video was hardly better than VHS in quality, but other moments were definitely only possible with high definition. Another Blu-ray only supplement is the Storyboard-to-Scene (10:26) comparison. This showed picture-in-picture comparisons of various scenes from the film with highly detailed storyboards via HD video.

After the two Blu-ray only supplements, there are a few more common pieces of value added content. A Still Gallery with two dozen photographs requires use of the remote to page through them. Cast and Crew Biographies for seventeen members of the cast and crew are menu-navigatable bits. There are Outtakes(5:18) that features belches and burps and other funny segments set to a rousing rock song. Women claim they never burp. I have video proof of this now. This was a very good set of outtakes and the green screen dancing Crawler was absolutely hilarious. Where did he get the broom from? The Also Available from Lionsgate and BD Credits complete the impressive list of supplements for the Blu-ray release of “The Descent.”

Closing Comments:
It took almost two full weeks to review “The Descent.” I watched the film on April Fools Day and planned to write my review that night. I then sat down and listened to the first commentary and completed a second full viewing. The film sat for a full week before I sat down and wrote the review for the film, sound and video. I then sat down to ‘skim’ through the second commentary and interactive features for a half hour or so and complete my review. The second commentary was awfully entertaining and I watched the film for a third complete time. Having already watched “The Descent” three complete times for this review, I waited another week and watched the complete film with the “Underground Experience” turned on. For what would have typically taken two hours to cover the two commentaries and the interactive video took closer to five additional hours. I don’t know if it was the British accents of all the pretty girls or just my interesting with the making of this film, but “The Descent” took forever to get through completely. I couldn’t spot listen to the commentaries as I do for most films with more than one track.

I like “The Descent,” but I am disappointed by it. The film started off as an incredibly entertaining horror film and hooked me in when they perfectly pulled off a scene involving a trapped girl. I knew the horror of that moment and could feel it down my spine. It was a frightening and very real horror scene. However, the film became all too obsessed with the Crawlers and lost much of the impact that I felt it could have had. It was a slightly better than average horror film, but it really could have been a contender. Regardless, it was good fun and the Blu-ray release may be the best single-disc release thus far released on the high definition format. The video and sound are all very good and had it not been for the dark visuals and long silences, they would have scored perfectly. The features took me two weeks to get through because I enjoyed them. I have a hard time not recommending this film because of the technical merits and first third of the film are simply among the best available on the format.