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Descent: Special Edition, The

Feature


A group of thrill-seeking female friends enter a deep, dark cave in a Middle-American forest. Excitement turns to terror when their entrance is blocked, sealing them in the pitch-black abyss. Tensions run high and accusations fly as the girls crawl through the chasm in search of a way out. Vendettas and endless corridors soon become the least of their troubles when they realize they aren’t alone…

The above synopsis illustrates the genius of Neil Marshall’s visceral horror piece, The Descent. The plot is not so much a plot, as a formula. A deceptively and deviously simple formula. Six attractive females enter a scary space, are trapped, and attacked by monsters. There’s a little more too it than that, to be sure, but at its base this is a sexy-girls-in-peril flick.

Descent: Special Edition, The
The best horror films can usually be partitioned into two categories, high-concept and formulaic. In this age of remakes and sequels, a high-concept horror film is welcome, but the intuitive reaction of well made formulaic work should not be overlooked. Some of the genre’s best directors have found a nitch, a formula, and stick with it most of their careers (Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava), others will flirt with innovation, only to return after relative failure (John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper). The formulaic horror film, when done right, is similar to a folk tale, passed on and ingrained within popular culture. Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, Cannibal Holocaust, The Thing, Alien; these are all films that work because of their simplicity.

Director Neil Marshall has, so far in his short career, embraced the formula horror film. In both his completed features – this one and 2002’s Dog Soldiers – he drops a small cast in a confined space surrounded by monsters. The Descent is a marked improvement on his first film, which was a flawed, but exciting piece of indie-action cinema, and utilizes the formula better than any genre fan could want. These movies are unabashedly silly, but The Descent ends up being more accomplished through unfazed straightness, whereas Dog Soldiers had a prominent silly streak.

The danger of the formulaic horror is the risk of over-exposure. In direct contradiction to my initial statements, the worst horror films are almost always formulaic. For every Twitch of the Death Nerve there are about a thousand Fatal Frames. The key to success seems to lie somewhere between sticking to the theorem and turning it on its head. Marshall prospers because he sets up the simple foundation, then fills in the cracks lesser films may have ignored. For example, though only three of the six protagonists are set up with much back-story, none of them feel too thinly drawn or unrealistic. Sometimes wooden acting can actually make a formulaic horror film better, but in this case the realism of the performances makes the terror more intimate.

Marshall has the audacious gall to hide his monsters for more than half the film, which is both a hindrance and advantage. The non-fantastic elements are scary enough that perhaps they could have worked better on their own, and the second the monsters show up I was personally no longer afraid. However, I was very entertained by these cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers, and the action sequences they initiated. What we have here are two great movies, one a claustrophobic thriller about the terror of spelunking, and the other a crowd-pleasing actioneer about hot chicks gorily battling creepy man-beasts. Unfortunately, when added together, the sum is somehow less than the two parts.

Descent: Special Edition, The
Our main character, Sarah, has lost her family in a car accident one year prior to the events of the cave, according to an prologue sequence that while well executed, might have well been stamped “prologue” in that it doesn’t fit in with the otherwise taught, twenty-four hour tale. Come to think of it, if there had been some kind of post-modern title card stamped “prologue” preceding the scene, it may have felt more organic. As it stands, the sequence is unnecessary, seemingly belonging in a third movie about the claustrophobic sadness that follows the death of a loved one. Marshall has the right idea mixing these themes, but they never quite gel.

But I’m focusing on the negative here. The Descent is one of the most nerve-racking ‘proper’ horror films I’ve experienced in a long time. I even jumped once (something I haven’t done since I first saw A Tale of Two Sisters), and one scene involving Sarah, an infrared camera, and a creature scurrying amongst her friends gave me some pretty big chills. The intensity rarely falters, even in moments of relative calm, insuring the aggravation in the audience. The events burn slowly, seeping an aura of dread into even the most jaded mind, lulling it into a creeped out sense of complacency, establishing the real scares infinitely more effectively.

The unpleasantness of cave diving is something I remember grappling (ha, pun) with since I was a child and first saw photos of the sport in National Geographic. Though I am aware that there was another creatures-in-a-deep-crevasse flick released this year, the utilization of the sport as a horrific element is quite inspired. What other sport mixes the fears of heights, small spaces, and man’s impotence in the face of nature better? Personally, I couldn’t image squirming through unknown caverns, just waiting for the inevitable cave in.

Gore-hounds may lose faith when there isn’t but one juicy shot for the first third of the film, but can rest assured that most of the grue is pushed to the end. The squeamish may want to prepare themselves for some pretty graphic (though over-edited) moments. Marshall is an equal opportunity splattermiester, and has no qualms about slicing up his feminine heroes, nor does he make them meek lambs to the slaughter, the CHUDs get their share too. But the liberal spilling of vital fluid, again, makes the finale feel like an entirely different film, a sore point I keep coming back to in my analysis.

Descent: Special Edition, The

Video


The Descent takes place in the darkest dark imaginable. Darkness has never been video’s best friend. The possibility of a demo-worthy transfer was not in the cards for this release. That said, the sequences that feature a fair amount of light fare pretty well. Marshall and his DP favour the same contrast heavy, over-cranked film stock they used for Dog Soldiers for most of the daylight sequences, like what Spielberg used for Saving Private Ryan. When contrasted against other colours, the black levels are commendable, and edge enhancement is at a minimum. The night footage, taking place before the descent itself uses a more natural stock, and comes off a little less crisp than the day footage.

Once into the cave, the crew intended on using as little supplementary lighting as possible, meaning that most sequences are illuminated by the actresses headlamps, flashlights (or torches as you wacky Brits call them), flares, and glow sticks. The glow sticks and flares afford an excuse for eerie, monochromatic ambiance, to the point where the screen will literally turn red during the spelunker’s most taxing hardships. The blackness around these lights is not often truly black. Frequently low-level noise, and illuminated film grain encompasses the frame. The filmmaker’s attempts at making the action observable leads to some light edge enhancement. None of these nuisances take away from the film’s overall success, and in the end I’m sure this was the best Marshall could get without utilizing digital film.

Audio


The villainous “Crawlers” of film are entirely audio dependant, and so is the tactile nature of the best horror films. A cave, as you very well know, is very prone to echoing, a fact that initiates some of the film’s best surround moments. The interplay of sound and silence is instrumental in maintaining the sense of fear and dread. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks both emanate creepy ambiance and sound that the viewer could attribute to “just the wind”. When the ground shifts and rocks fall, the LFE throbs to life, and the viewer trembles. The minimalist score is also malevolently effective in selling some of the more harrowing scares, and the actresses and Crawlers scream, this impressive soundtrack will drown out your own.

Extras


Though not the most “special” special edition I’ve ever seen, this two-disc set still has quite a bit to offer. Disc one features two commentary tracks, one with the director and five of the six leads, the other with the director and some crewmembers. Both tracks have a few cute anecdotes, but there's a lot of silence, mumbling, and chatting about unrelated and uninteresting topics (this from the actress track). I lost interest in both tracks pretty quickly and caught myself skipping chapters in search of something more entertaining.

Descent: Special Edition, The
Disc two begins with a sharp, but all too short making of documentary. Basically, it follows the actual filming process, leaving most of the pre and post-production to our imaginations. There are loads of one-on-one interviews with cast and crewmembers, including some more personal musings on the production from our ladies of despair. The silly question as to each actress’s favourite horror film is asked early on, along with the usual early involvement stories. Director Marshall gets the most screen time, but never really goes into more than the technical aspects of the show, including his admitted dues to The Shinning, Deliverance, and Alien.

We are privy to the main actresses’ crash-course in cave diving, which occurred just before shooting started, and allowed them to build comradely, which helped them establish their believable onscreen relationships. Early creature designs are divulged, and all throughout the design dialogue, everyone involved conveniently manages to not mention the Crawlers many striking similarities with Blade II’s Reapers. The actors playing the Reapers, oh, excuse me, the Crawlers are revealed to be real actors, not gymnasts or dancers. This decision is attributed to Marshall’s insistence on believable creatures, and it seems to have paid off. It turns out that the skin-crawling Crawler reveal I mentioned earlier in my film review, was actually the actresses’ first introduction to the make-up and actors beneath it. All those screams are genuine.

The doc is followed by a selection of extended scenes. These are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, and use mostly on-set sound (clump, clump, clump, go the wooden floors that are standing in for the heavy, and far less pliable rock). As per the norm, these were all rightfully deleted for pacing purposes, with the possible exception of a few that reveal an actual sister relationship between two of the girls. With these snippets missing from the final feature, I had no idea that any of the characters were suppose to be blood related. Curiously, the only anamorphically enhanced feature on the set is the blooper reel, which I suppose is cute, but kind of unnecessary. The second disc is rounded out with the usual still galleries (which don’t feature nearly enough early creature designs), slow moving storyboard comparisons, trailers, and cast and crew info, that criminally features no pictures.

Descent: Special Edition, The

Overall


Some British magazines have slightly over-praised this film, even calling it one of the best horror films of all time. I’m going to disagree with these exaggerated analyses, but still strongly recommend the film, especially to horror genre fans. The DVD itself is nothing earth shattering, but presents some satisfying extras and a squeal-inducing soundtrack. The Descent is good, old-fashion scary filmmaking, the characters are easy to sympathize with, the motivations believable, and the setting dreadful. I only wish the film's two parts had gelled a little better.

You can purchase this title from Xploitedcinema.com.


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