How many ways can you make a movie experience terrifying? An unfamiliar location works. A predator you aren’t prepared for helps. Tension within the group is a plus for sure. Add in being in a confined space with no obvious way out and you are cooking. Top it with being stuck in the dark and you have a real good time. You might even add in a character’s personal road to recovery for more meat to the story. While these are all promising ways to strengthen your story, the problem is you wind up with too many factors. Yet every once in a while, you get a gem like The Descent that can tie it all together.
In the beginning of The Descent, you have a really close group of women on a rafting trip. As they all make their way home, Sarah’s family is in a car accident. Her husband and daughter are killed in the accident with her surviving. She is understandably devastated and the group drifts apart over the next year.
A year later, the group of women get together for another trip to rebuild their friendships that have diminished since the accident. They are in the Appalachian mountains for a spelunking trip. The night before they hit the caves, they are all drinking and hanging out together in a more amicable mood. The next morning, they hit the trail to a mountain.
While exploring the cave, the passage collapses blocking them from exiting the way they came. Immediately, they gather themselves, confident they will be rescued as their exploration plan is registered in a known cave system. When they don’t check in, there will be a rescue team sent to the caves. This relief is short-lived as Juno informs them hat she has taken them to a system other than what they recorded as their plan. This is not the last time the group will have reason to distrust one another in their search for escape.
While they search for a way out of the caves, they find that they are not alone. Unfortunately, this is not another group of spelunkers around the corner, but a predatory group. There are humanoid creatures that are hunting them for food by sound. So not only are they in a confined environment they don’t know and can’t get out of, they are fleeing from a predator that has a natural advantage.
In the process, Sarah gets separated from the group and must learn to survive on her own. Initially overwhelmed and unsure by the challenge in front of her, she quickly adjusts for her own safety. In the process of learning to survive, we see Sarah grow from being rattled into regaining control over her life and surroundings. By the end of her journey, she is strong and assured of herself and willing to do what she must to survive.
Pretty much everything in this movie is done right as a horror story. The claustrophobia is perfect for the tension and the sense of distrust just adds to it spectacularly. The dark, confined quarters are ideal for it and the predators are wonderfully suited for the environment. Their weaknesses are a match, for the weaknesses presented by the surroundings of the protagonists.
Now, all of that is well and good and works for the movie. But what really grows more apparent and enjoyable over time is the character interaction and development. You can see the underlying distrust in their relations as events begin to unfold. You can see the way that they look at each other differently while stuck in the caves.
The best is the growth of Sarah. While she is broken down at the beginning of the story, through personal tragedy, she becomes the most rugged. At first in the cave, she is easily shaken and frightened. By the end, she has grown strong and confident in herself. She has learned to confront the world as it is instead of trying to shut it out or pretend it isn’t that way. She is willing to confront how she is being wronged and deal with it on her own terms.
It isn’t just what is going on story-wise either. The actors give strong performances and make all of the interplay and paranoia come to life. The betrayal, fear, and anger is realized in their faces. Also, the chemistry between them works and is believable for a group of friends.
And when you look behind the camera, everything is solid as well. The sound design is fantastic and the effects make you jump. The creature effects are gritty and hold up over time. The directing, pacing and lighting are just about pitch-perfect. I’m honestly hard pressed to find something wrong with it. While not truly a perfect film, it is a great film that does what it sets out to do almost perfectly. Honestly, I think anyone who likes movies should watch it regardless of whether or not they like horror. It is just that good as a movie.
Picture Quality: 4/5
This is certainly a good transfer for The Descent. There aren’t many blemishes to be found here. There are a few instances where colors look just a shade off, but that all seems to disappear once we enter the caves. Everything looks as it should in the darkness. Nothing ever looks muddled in the low light conditions. Everything is clear with good blacks throughout the entirety of the cave sequences. Thankfully for a movie that spends over half its runtime in a cave, the blacks are truly satisfying.
Audio Quality: 4.5/5
The Descent comes with an uncompressed PCM 6.1 track as well as Dolby 5.1 EX. The audio is great on the track. The audio sets the tension every step along the way. The surround is effective and directionality is well placed. The sound levels are well-balanced through the movie. The dialog is always clear. For a movie that has limited visibility as a focal point, the track does a great job of making you feel a part of the movie.
Supplemental Features and Packaging: 4.5/5
Descent: An Underground Experience: This is a behind the scenes featurettes. You have the movie playing on the full screen picture. And in a the foreground PiP, you have behind the scenes on set. You get to see discussions and the filming and rehearsal of scenes. This is certainly the most interesting feature in the release.
Blooper Reel: I believe this to be a lost art at this point. I really forgot how much fun they can be. For the set of a legitimately scary horror movie, they sure did have some funny blooper reels.
Storyboard to Scene: Opportunity to see some of the storyboards and the scenes that they became. Picture in picture style with the scene set in front of the storyboard.
The Descent: Beneath the Scenes: Descent comes with its own documentary. This is a pretty solid offering. The cast discusses working on the film starting with preparing for the role mentally and physically. The director discusses his influences and creating the story. Also, this includes behind the scenes effects work.
Caving: An HD Experience: A short POV entrance into a cave. Eh, I guess its cool. Doesn’t compare to the movie, though.
Descending: Interview with director discussing the two endings to the movie.
Deleted and Extended Scenes: Several scenes that were cut or partially cut for runtime or flow. In most cases, this was the right decision.
Commentary with Director and the actresses Nora Jane Noone, Sasika Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Shauna Macdonald, and Alex Reid: From the first moment, the much more energetic track. Lot’s of laughing and light chatter. This group really relives the memories together in an enjoyable gathering.
Commentary with Director Neil Marshall, editor John Harrison, assistant editor Tina Richardson, producer Christian Colson, and production designer Simon Bowles: The much drier of the two. A lot of informational talk about the filming and decisions made.
The packaging is just a simple Blu-ray case. No slipcover or anything like that. The movie does honestly deserve better. Pretty much the only knock on this side of things.
The Descent Overall: 4.5/5
Overall, there aren’t many movies that are as good at what they intend to do as The Descent. It delivers tone exceptionally well. Neil Marshall does a great job of conveying a legitimately terrifying location on the screen. The acting is up to snuff and so are the effects and direction. The video is great and the audio outstanding. The release has both cuts of the movie as well as a picture in picture behind the scenes. We get almost all the behind the scenes extras you could ask for. There is hardly anything more you could want in the release. Toss it in a nicer package and you’d have everything I could ask for. I can’t even ask for an ultraviolet code because the release is from before that was such a thing. Everyone should see The Descent and you really can’t go wrong with this release.