The Descent Review
IMPORTANT: It has come to my attention that, at some point in 2007, a new pressing of The Descent was released by Lions Gate, featuring an MPEG-2 rather than AVC encode of the film which looks noticeably inferior to the one reviewed here, exhibiting compression artefacts and having been pre-filtered to remove grain and fine detail. I wish to make it clear that this review only applies to the AVC version, not the MPEG-2 version. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way of discerning which version you are buying without actually playing the disc itself, as the packaging is identical.
You can follow the discussion of this strange situation at the AV Science Forum, where you can also find screen captures comparing the two different encodes.
What do you get if you take six women and trap them in an underground cavern? If you answered "One of the best horror films of the last decade", you'd be correct. The Descent, British writer/director Neil Marshall's follow-up to the successful werewolf shocker Dog Soldiers, is a gripping, visceral and extremely effective chiller that embraces the classic genre conventions of playing on our fear of the dark and enclosed spaces, as well as our demons, both emotional and physical.
The plot focuses on Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who, a year after losing her husband and young daughter in a gruesome accident, accompanies five friends on a caving expedition near the Appalachian Mountains in the northern United States. The expedition, led by the intrepid Juno (Natalie Mendoza), is intended to be an opportunity for Sarah to put the accident behind her, but it quickly becomes clear that, psychologically, she is far from in the pink, and her precarious mental state is not helped when the group find themselves trapped in the darkness of an uncharted network of caves, along with some creatures whose intentions are far from pleasant...
One of The Descent's many positives is its uncompromising level of violence, something which does not appear to have gone down well with everyone. I read one particular review whose disgruntled writer complained that Marshall had thrown in blood and gore "simply to please the horror fans in the audience". Exactly what is this if not a horror film? Marshall may spend considerably longer establishing the diverse personalities of his sextet of heroines than most horror directors probably would, but the film never pretends to be something that it is not, embracing its claustrophobic setting and the nastiness inflicted upon the six women, both by the cave-dwellers and by each other.
This is a film that reveals both the best and worst attributes of humankind, from their initial attempts to comfort each other and function as a team to escape from the prison in which they find themselves, to the eventual disintegration of that partnership as their numbers begin to drop and they turn on each other. David Julyan's unusually grandiose score, which wouldn't seem entirely out of place in a historical epic but is nothing short of magnificent in the context of this film, plays a considerable part in establishing the atmosphere, as do the commendably detailed sound design and the various creature and gore effects, which combine good old-fashioned prosthetics with the reddest, most paint-like blood this side of Suspiria. Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy, meanwhile, make impeccable use of the locations at their disposal (primarily a Pinewood Studios set, with Hertfordshire and various locations in Scotland doubling for the United States), exploiting confined spaces and low lighting conditions to really ramp up the terror, allowing the audience to be right there with the luckless cavers and experience their growing terror and confusion first-hand.
Some of this confusion, admittedly, may not have been intentional: two of the women look so similar in the dark that it becomes difficult at times to distinguish between them, and on my first viewing there was a point at which I thought a certain character had been killed, only for her to seemingly reappear later on, at which point I realised I had confused one with the other. Beyond that, however, both Marshall's script and the decidedly game cast do a great deal to establish the six main characters as individuals and, more importantly, convincing as real people. These are not your traditional horror movie victims or gung-ho action heroines ("I'm not the fucking Tomb Raider," one character tells another early on in the film) but tough, realistic (and foul-mouthed) women who will do anything to survive. As with another recent female-dominated horror film, Christophe Gans' excellent and underrated adaptation of Silent Hill, the lack of male characters seems to work in its favour, as it allows the script to avoid the usual pitfalls of locking its characters into stereotypical roles. None of the cast is anything less than excellent, and while Natalie Mendoza may be the scene-stealer of the ensemble, with the feisty Juno getting some of the best lines and serving as the closest the film has to a traditional action heroine, the standout performance comes from Shauna Macdonald as Sarah.
Macdonald, who many viewers will probably remember as the doe-eyed Sam Buxton from the second and third seasons of the BBC spy drama Spooks, has a nice, unaffected screen presence that helps ground her character in reality and also serves to make the transition that she undergoes as the film progresses more believable than it would have been in the hands of a more traditional movie star persona. Her transformation into a wide-eyed, snarling terminator who, towards the end of the film, looks strikingly like Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or, unblinking and drenched from head to foot in blood, Sissy Spacek in Carrie, is nothing short of completely convincing, and I sincerely hope that this actor gets more leading roles in the future, particularly in the horror genre, where such performances are sorely needed.
The Descent is, quite simply, a magnificent horror film, and one which, in this age of smug, self-conscious "horror comedies" and cheap, cynical "torture porn", proves that there remain few things more effective than placing a group of characters in a terrifying situation and seeing how they react. It's a horror film that is not ashamed to be one, but which at the same time avoids the pitfalls commonly associated with the genre. In short, a must-see.
Special Halloween bonus! Click the image above to view the full 1080p frame!
The earlier UK standard definition release by Pathé featured a transfer that, at the time, I was rather impressed by, but, in comparison with the Blu-ray release, it understandably falls short. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded at 1080p using the AVC codec, The Descent is one of the strongest examples I have seen so far of what high definition is truly capable of. When someone uses the phrase "transparent to the master", this is what they ought to be referring to: rarely have I seen an image that looks so completely natural and film-like. Detail is exemplary, with not a hint of edge enhancement in sight. The image is alive with grain, especially in the more brightly lit exteriors, and, most crucially, it is natural, unprocessed grain - the sort of thing that would be impossible to reproduce in standard definition due to the low resolution, even with an adequate bit rate. The bit rate, according to my Playstation 3's display counter, often peaks at around 30 Mbps, but most of the time hovers around the high teens, with the final encode taking up just over 21 GB (including audio but not including extras).
The transfer is also noticeably brighter than its standard definition counterpart, which was often so dark that it became difficult to see what was happening during the more dimly lit moments deep in the caverns. Originally, I had assumed that the darkness was intentional, but looking at the brighter high definition transfer, the increased light levels look better to my eyes, accentuating Sam McCurdy's often striking cinematography and bringing out some of the grain that was previously hidden. In comparison, the previous release looked overly contrasty, not only hampering the shadow detail in the darker scenes but also blowing out the highlights in the brighter exteriors.
A comparison between the DVD and Blu-ray versions also reveals dramatically different colour values. While the HD version shows a more naturalised colour palette, the DVD looks far more stylised, with the discrepancies sometimes being so pronounced as to suggest that the two versions came from two completely differently colour-timed masters. I suspect that it will be down to the individual which variant is preferred, but personally I found the more natural colours of the Blu-ray release to be easier on the eyes. (Note that I haven't seen the US standard definition release, so I am unable to comment on which "version" it featured.) I've included a couple of examples of this discrepancy below.
Above: DVD version (Pathé, UK)
Above: Blu-ray version (Lions Gate, USA)
Above: DVD version (Pathé, UK)
Above: Blu-ray version (Lions Gate, USA)
The audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (640 Kbps) and PCM 7.1 (6.1 Mbps) flavours, both in English. Unfortunately, as a Playstation 3 user without an HDMI-compliant audio decoder, I was unable to experience the PCM track in anything more than bog standard stereo, which is a shame, because the film's sound design is often incredibly detailed and inventive. The Dolby track, meanwhile, is of a high standard, but doesn't offer that much of a noticeable improvement over its counterpart on the standard definition release, and falls short in terms of depth and bass response when compared to some of the better-sounding titles available on both HD formats, while the rear-channel action is more limited than I would have expected. The final score represents the quality of the Dolby track, and will be updated if and when I get the chance to experience the PCM track.
English and Spanish subtitles are also provided for the film but not the extras.
Please also note that this Blu-ray release includes two versions of the film: the version that was released in cinemas and on DVD in the UK (listed here as the Original Unrated Cut), and the American theatrical version, which, without giving too much away, alters the ending to make it seem like less of a downer. I vastly prefer the original UK version, but your mileage may vary, and the American cut doesn't destroy the film anything like as much as you might expect.
The packaging claims that the extras are "presented in high definition", but this turns out to be a bit of a misnomer. Some of the extras are in native 1080i, but the bulk of them are merely upscaled from standard definition 480i, and standards converted 576i-to-480i at that (being a British film, the bulk of the behind the scenes materials were shot in PAL). On the bright side, it appears that all of the bonus content from the standard definition 2-disc release has been replicated here (barring the theatrical trailer), making this a more complete package than many of Lions Gate's Blu-ray releases.
First up are two laid-back and chatty audio commentaries, both featuring writer/director Neil Marshall. The first listed (despite being identified on the track itself as the second one recorded) teams him up with editor Jon Harris, assistant editor Catriona Richardson, producer Christian Colson and production designer Simon Bowles, and the second with actresses Nora-Jane Noone (Holly), Saskia Mulder (Rebecca), Myanna Buring (Sam), Shauna MacDonald (Sarah) and Alex Reid (Beth). The second is by far the livelier of the two, with the various ladies engaging in a lot of banter, much of it very funny, although those with more interest in the technical side of the film's production will obviously want to listen to the first track, since there's not much time for Marshall to get a word in edgeways once his various stars get going.
Up next is DescEnding: interview with writer/director Neil Marshall. Exclusive to the American DVD and Blu-ray versions, this 7-minute featurette explains the decision to modify (more like shorten) the film's ending for its US release, and why the two versions ended up being different. Marshall is pretty gracious about this Lions Gate-mandated alteration, but it's hard not to shake the sense that he is biting his tongue here.
The remaining extras are 10 minutes' worth of deleted and extended scenes, a storyboard to scene comparison, a still gallery, biographies of the key cast and crew members, a bunch of outtakes, bonus previews for other Lions Gate Blu-ray releases, and a 41-minute documentary entitled The Descent: Beneath the Scenes, which provides a pretty comprehensive overview of the making of the film, with plenty of interview footage with Marshall and his cast and crew. As in the commentaries, the atmosphere is very laid-back, and it comes across pretty clearly that the film was a lot of fun to make.
Blu-ray Exclusive Extras
Lions Gate have provided two bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray release. The first, Descent: An Underground Experience, is a picture-in-picture featurette that plays alongside the film itself, similar to the In-Movie Experience features found on several HD DVDs. However, unlike these HD DVD variants, this is not a true PiP feature, since, due to the technological shortcomings of the BD-Java platform in its current iteration, secondary video streams are not possible on the majority of players (and, more than likely, never will be). As a result, The Descent actually includes a second encode of the entire film on the same disc, with a small video window hard overlaid on top. In actual practice, it makes little difference, but it does mean that switching between the film itself and PiP mode is not as seamless as it would ideally have been, while the inclusion of two complete copies of the film on the same disc doesn't strike me as a particularly good way to make use of the format's 50 GB capacity.
In any event, it's a pretty good feature, combining interviews with behind the scenes footage, with an emphasis on the former. The comments are not always scene-specific, but they are largely insightful, although quite a lot of information is repeated that is conveyed elsewhere on the disc.
The other Blu-ray exclusive extra is something called Caving: An HD Experience, essentially 9 minutes of hand-held footage exploring an unidentified cave. It is presented in 1080i HD, although the picture quality is so poor and over-compressed that it might as well not be.
The Descent is one of the most impressive high definition releases I have seen so far, not only for featuring a stellar transfer and solid audio support, but also for featuring one of the best modern films released on either format thus far, and for being one of the few Blu-ray releases to not only port over all of the extras from its standard definition counterpart, but also for including an array of HD exclusive bonuses. Yes, the lack of true picture-in-picture means that the effect is not as seamless as it could have been, but this is overall a magnificent release and one of the best Blu-ray discs I've seen.