It was a major relief when Neil Marshall's second film exceeded the potential fans felt for the director after his first film, Dog Soldiers, became a cult favourite on a DVD release from Velocity. The Descent is a chilling horror film, but at its core, it's about the destruction of friendship when a group of empowered, thrill-seeking women are crammed into a confined space and assaulted from every dark, dank corner. In the end, it isn't the cave-CHUDs that affect their survival, but the arrogance of one group member, and the mistakes of several. Add guilt, personality clashes, and mistrust, and you get a story that transcends the genre much in the way the best horror efforts from the seventies and eighties did.
In the DVD's interview and commentary tracks, director Marshall openly cites specific cinematic masterpieces that influenced him while he was writing, pre-planning shots, and directing The Descent, and they're all films that broke the rules. It's particularly welcoming to see how he successfully applied the same structural theory used in Alien (before Ridley Scott mucked up the film in his 2004 re-edit): introduce your characters, establish a strong combination of camaraderie and latent conflicts, and a third into the film, start poking them until they're faced with nothing but the greatest horror imaginable, and remain unrelenting straight to the end.
Marshall 's film is another entry in the Michael Reeves School of Cinematic Bleakness, something filmmakers from the United Kingdom do extremely well: they take us on a journey of dread and despair, and are braver than mainstream North American filmmakers in sticking to their guns and holding onto their ending that does not setup a sequel, prequel, or TV series. When The Descent was bought by Lions Gate for a North American release, the film was pushed back after Columbia 's inane The Cave stole the thunder, and left a sour impression in audiences' mouths. That film, while a marvelous technical accomplishment in the use of high-def video, was a colossally stupid B-movie that borrowed elements from Leviathan, and gave the actors nothing but jock-talk to play with between ineptly edited action montages.
Planning a 2006 release strategy, Lions Gate asked Marshall if he wanted to alter the finale of his film, and as he explains in a separate director interview, test audiences preferred the shorter finale in which the film's survivor achieves a kind of salvation. The finale is glimpsed in the interview featurette, and we can largely agree with Marshall 's assessment that it does betray the traumatic limbo the character should have experienced, and actually presents new and confusing questions; so this DVD does not offer that finale as a separately playable bonus.
Maple's DVD replicates the contents of the two-disc Region 2 set from England, and it's an excellent offering for fans - but be forewarned that after the making-of featurette, you'll know every trick employed to create what seems like a massive underground cave system. You might wish you'd never seen what lay behind the magicians' velvety curtains (sometimes literally), and you'll know where the goofs and gaffes appear the next time you watch the film.
The sets were huge and elaborate, the creature designs repulsive, and the low-tech tricks proof that some of the most frightening effects can be created without digital trickery. Also of note is the footage shown in the featurette and deleted scenes gallery, which show how much the actors had to pretend they were in the worst place on Earth, when the studio lights were quite bright, and the sets reconstituted from prior sequences. Much of the cinematography was stopped down, and the results are near-perfect impressions of being trapped in a cave with dim light sources.
The filmmaker commentary track - which features Marshall and several crewmates - also shows the careful planning that went into the film, and again reinforces the value in starting with a great (and finished) script before spending money on production (something the producers of the American Pulse remake should've done). Marshall mostly dominates the track, and it's a bit too laid-back at times, given so many of the film's crew are sitting alongside the director, but there's still an intriguing stream of production facts and recollections, and one does realize how much the filmmakers love the genre. The fact Marshall sought out the identical fonts to John Carpenter's The Thing for his film shows a geek's dedication to his art, and knowing what cool things will subtly enhance a production. The use of Jan de Bont-styled lens flares is just as attractive.
For the second commentary track (actually recorded first), most of the actors (less Natalie* Mendoza) join Marshall in a consistent series of production anecdotes and raucous recollections, and one also hears the group flinching, shrieking, and groaning at the same nasty scenes that made audiences squirm (something that brings limitless glee to Marshall). The film was actually shot in chronological order - a strategic move for efficiently using every chunk of the sets - and it also gave the actors clean paths to chart their characters' respective conflicts, trauma, and deaths.
The group also discuss the actors who played the cave-CHUDs, and their makeup routine is also captured in the making-of featurette. The lead creature also launches the blooper/outtake reel, which anyone feeling grim and low should watch right after the film, since it features the creature doing a ridiculous jig in front of a green screen, before a collection of silly and rude moments fill out the reel.
The rest of the disc contains storyboard comparisons, concise cast & crew bios, and a deleted scenes gallery, which assembles extended and deleted scenes that were wisely shorn from the final edit to keep the pacing tight, and the atmosphere unflinchingly claustrophobic.
Only qualms: composer David Julyan, whose score adds a wealth of atmosphere and character subtext, is reduced to a mere mention (albeit with much reverence) on the commentary tracks; he deserved an interview or profile at the very least.
The best campaign, which showed the actresses forming a giant skull, was given to the full screen DVD release (which could have been solved by sleeve art with reversible artwork). At least the transfer is first-rate, and the 5.1 mix, much like the sound design in Dog Soldiers, will scare the heck out of you.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan