Lionsgate // 2005 // 99 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // January 15th, 2007
Sam: Have you ever been down these caves before?
Rebecca: No, but they're only level two. You don't have to worry.
After some very positive reviews in its initial run, The Descent has seen its share of supporters and detractors. Now that the original British cut has been released on DVD, is it worth checking out? Is it silly and unbelievable? I can only really answer for myself, but I can honestly say I've rarely been this taken in by a horror movie.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, The Rocket Post) is still trying to get over the tragic loss of her husband and daughter. To get away for a while, she joins some friends for an annual girls-only extreme sports adventure. She is close friends with Beth (Alex Reid, Wilderness) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza, Moulin Rouge!), the leader of the expedition. They are joined by sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder, The Beach) and Sam (MyAnna Buring, The Omen). Tagging along for the first time is wild child Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, Ella Enchanted), who is disappointed that they are only climbing down a level two cave.
As the group crawls down into the cavern, things start to go badly. There are dangerous things down in the dark depths of the cave, and it gets worse as it becomes clear that the women are hiding equally dangerous things from each other.
Many critics have recently complained about a few key points surrounding The Descent. I want to tackle these before I explain why this is one of the best horror movies in years. The biggest complaints have focused on the creatures in the dark. There are some plot holes involving their physiological development and hunting patterns. Thinking about it afterwards, these things really don't make much sense. Of course, neither do werewolves or zombies or vampires. I would be far more critical of these inconsistencies if The Descent had claimed to be based on a true story, or if it were designed to be a documentary on cave dwelling humanoids. It's a horror movie, though, and the problems with the creatures didn't bother me once during the film. The reason is simple: This is a well designed, well filmed, scary, meaty, awesome horror movie. Anyone who comes away complaining about the monsters has entirely missed the point.
Horror movies rarely have the self-respect to let us get to know characters before killing them off. The most expendable characters usuallyaren't even named; all but the few survivors rarely prove to be more than cardboard cutout stereotypes. When a film like The Descent comes around, it's genuinely refreshing. By the time the six women are in danger, we have gotten to know all of them, and we care about them. It helps that all of the actors are sincere and genuine about the roles. The characters are all flawed, but they are all decent people, women whose flaws and secrets could be life threatening in a spelunking expedition. We are all the more glued to the screen when things get ugly, because director Neil Marshall hasn't rushed through the setup. In the best monster movies, people turn out to be the most monstrous of all. The Descent knows that rule, and follows it brilliantly.
Good horror movies also hit us where we're already vulnerable. Whether you're afraid of small spaces, the dark, heights, or monsters, The Descent will slam you in the gut at least once. In fact, the film had completely wrapped up by the time the actual monsters appear. Think about them? I was too engrossed in the battle to worry about that. Technically, they are as well put together as the rest of the production, looking and sounding genuinely scary. Ultimately, horror movies are about the experience, not the thinking. I'm sure there are some good spelunking documentaries for those of you who want verisimilitude. For the rest of us, it's hard to go wrong with the white-knuckle fear and hard-R gore of The Descent. I would put it at the same level as Alien, which is very high praise for me.
For the American theatrical run, Lions Gate chose to release The Descent with a cheerful alternate ending. Having heard great things about the film, I imported the British special edition DVD so that I could enjoy the film as it was meant to be. To my pleasant surprise, the only DVD available is the original edition, which is what makes this the "original unrated cut." No gore has been re-inserted, but the original downbeat ending has been restored. The only question now is whether the American edition could live up to the reference quality video, gut-pummeling DTS track and second disc of special features that I already own.
It comes pretty close. The video transfer is a bit softer, but the (very important) black levels are perfect, as are the equally important red levels. There are a few signs of compression as well, including some not-so filmlike grain during action scenes. The audio comes in the form of a Dolby 5.1 EX track, which almost lives up to the DTS track I'm used to. There are a number of special features as well, all crammed onto the same disc. Neil Marshall has recorded two commentary tracks, a technical one with some crew members and a fun-filled nostalgic one with the cast. Both of the tracks are good, because they both do what they need to. The cast commentary is a blast, and the crew commentary is full of fascinating stories and information. Past that, there is a promotional featurette, as well as a longer interview with Marshall discussing the two endings. The deleted and extended scenes are interesting, and mastered well Most are short, but they reveal a bit more about the characters. The outtake reel is fun, too. After that, there are some storyboard samples, a photo gallery, and some biographies. All in all, this is a well-stocked special edition.
Horror fans should add The Descent to their collections as quickly as possible. It truly is a descent: mentally, emotionally and physically. It's one of the most intense and competently directed horror films in a very long time. It is a solid 100 minutes of thrills, shocks, and gore. As long as you can park your monster logic at the door, I can't imagine you walking away disappointed. Even if you usually find horror films too silly or heartless, you may find something to like in The Descent. It has an interesting and dynamic cast of characters who will earn your sympathy and screams.
Not guilty. The Descent made me want to never, ever go spelunking...in a good way.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Crew Commentary
* Cast Commentary
* Production Featurette
* Extended Scenes
* Outtake Reel