Thursday, 22 June 2006

Thursday, 22 June 2006
DIRECTOR: Neil Marshall WRITER: Neil Marshall
CAST: Shauna Macdonald (Sarah), Natalie Jackson Mendoza (Juno), Alex Reid (Beth), Saskia Mulder (Rebecca), Myanna Buring (Sam), Nora-Jane Noone (Holly), more

A few years ago, a low-budget action/horror movie called Dog Soldiers made respectable profit at the UK box-office and gathered cult status amongst worldwide horror aficionados. Writer-director Neil Marshall's pulpy "soldiers vs. werewolves" opus may have been flawed and scrappy, but it remained refreshingly different from the usual British output.

Marshall returns with a bigger budget, but keeps the same guerilla-style, with The Descent. It's another gleefully old-fashioned horror adventure with a simple premise: a team of women extreme-sporters descend into an uncharted cave, only to face natural disasters and awaken some unnatural predators…

The Descent undoubtedly takes it cues from movies like Alien, building suspense to breaking point with carefully constructed set-pieces and in fleshing out the characters beforehand. There's nothing particularly different or original once the monsters are revealed, although the caving premise is actually quite fresh (although the similarly themed The Cave was released soon after…) But no matter, because with half the budget of The Cave, Marshall shows the Yanks how to crank up the tension with some genuine scares and well-placed chills.

From the same mould of Dog Soldiers (single-sex team confront supernatural predators in a natural territory), this is another mix of engaging characters and superbly realized make-up effects. While Dog Soldiers' budget meant the werewolves resembled men with giant Alsatian heads, the "Crawlers" in The Descent are thankfully of a more human design (half-Gollum, half-caveman) -- a great addition to the pantheon of movie monsters.

What makes the movie so effective is the time it takes to ensure you invest in the characters. In fact, for almost half its run-time, the tension, suspense and moments of horror are all character and situation based. There's a superb moment that replicated the feeling of claustrophobia inside a cave that is just perfection, and a queasy broken leg scene that's certainly not for the squeamish. In fact, so good is the first half of The Descent, that you'll be forgiven for thinking the appearance monsters is actually disappointing after the initial shock value.

This is blood-soaked fun as the intrepid women cavers make the titular descent into madness as their perilous situation becomes increasingly frightening and seemingly insurmountable. Kudos must go to all the actors involved -- particularly those actresses who ensure their death scenes actually carry some resonance and leave you numb. The actors playing the slimy Crawlers also use their body languages very effectively (almost miming their nastiness), while the production design and special-effects are fantastic. The film is not reliant on CGI and it old-fashioned in-camera effects give everything that raw, gritty reality computers can't replicate.

But there is a negative; the ending is too drawn out and clever-clever for its own good. A stronger and more definitive finale would have been preferable to the moody scene we get, which could also leave many people scratching their heads in confusion. But, beyond that, The Descent is a great exercise in terror that does exactly what it says on the tin. Neil Marshall may be the shining light of horror Britain needs right now, and on the evidence of this far more accomplished sophomore effort, I'm really looking forward to his future projects…


PICTURE: The Descent is a very dark film and the purity of the blackness isn't always 100% in the cave sequences, with some grain and noise visible. However, none of this is very distracting and the transfer copes well considering. The daylight scenes are all heavily contrasted, giving the film a bleached effect similar to Saving Private Ryan. Overall, the picture isn't perfect, but it does a commendable job under such difficult conditions.

SOUND: No problems with sound, as the DTS and DD5.1 soundtracks are fantastic experiences full of echoing and a continuous feeling of dread. The Crawlers themselves are effective primarily through clever use of surround sound effects, with them scuttling about your speakers. The cave location is just a great place for a filmmaker to have some fun with surround sound, so falling rocks have plenty of bass and the rear speakers whistle with wind and drips of rainwater. The musical score is also well mixed with the dialogue.


Disk 1: Commentary Tracks. The first is with director Marshall and five of the cast, the other with the director and some crew. Both are generally quite rambling and uninteresting, with just a few anecdotes to keep your interest.

Disk 2: Making Of Documentary. This is quite a good little documentary that does an effective job of showing the filming of the movie. A few on-set interviews are sprinkled throughout, together with some insight into the training undertaken by the female cast and creature designs.

Extended Scenes. Non-anamorphic widescreen footage of certain scenes, correctly excised for pacing reasons.

Bloopers. Mildly diverting outtakes from filming.

Still Galleries. For obsessive fans only!

Storyboard Comparisons. Moderately interesting.

Trailers. Not a bad selection of teaser and theatrical trailers, but all quite similar.

Well, this is another so-called Special Edition that is nothing of the sort. The Descent SE is a good video transfer with a superb audio mix, capped off with a nice selection of extra features that provide just the right level of insider scoop, although fans would have preferred more in-depth material. A decent DVD release with some worthwhile additions, recommended to all horror fans.