The Descent Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies & TV review


    The Descent Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £24.79


    Really utilising a 2.35:1 image for a film that is predominantly set inside deep dark caves and inky black crevices may not sound like such a useful idea, yet Marshall's film comes across well with this aspect, as the wider frame actually enhances the claustrophobia of such a setting, creating acres of darkness and intense shadow. And the transfer is at its best during these predominant sequences, with pin-sharp rendering of torchlight, flames, light-sticks and ambient light picking clearly and atmospherically through the gloom, and the huge expanses of darkness suffering no detail-crush, blockiness or artefacting, and remaining satisfyingly deep and solid. In fact, this BD transfer is possibly of pure reference quality in this department and I can't think of a film that provides as tough a test for black integrity and accurate contrast levels.

    Skin tones are naturalistic, although to be fair, most of the time, the skin of these pretty ladies is covered with blood. And blood, you'll be pleased to know, is extremely red and thick and comes over as well as any gorehound could hope for, despite the darkness that swallows up most of the action. Colours, though hardly taxed with such a setting, are good, and, unlike the SD editions that occasionally revealed evidence of smearing and over-saturation - the reds of flares, for example - remain firmly locked and appear deep and rich. The gleam of ice-picks flashing in the gloom is well presented and visual information, essentially in close-ups of faces, rocks, equipment, is particularly good - with fear-filled eyes, drooling fangs and ripped flesh all appearing in succulent detail. Once again, MacDonald's eyes igniting beneath a sheen of incandescent blood are tremendously bold and striking. And the crawlers have been lavished, if that's the right word, with even more impressive detail than ever before.

    Viewed on a 52 inch Sharp 1080p LCD, the original SD discs revealed some shortcomings. Chief of these areas of concern was with the open air daylight sequences above ground, which always seemed a little indistinct, jagged and quite flat. Edge enhancement, though minimal, was still there with the open air sequences actually appearing to accentuate it. But, this high-resolution transfer nixes all of those digital niggles and allows even the once-problematic exteriors to shine with clarity and an excellent new sense of depth. There is still some grain to be seen on the outside and upon some close-up head-shots and there are a couple of occasions when the blacks seem to buzz with noise - but this instances are slight and, in no way at all, detract from the rewarding qualities of the transfer. This added depth (no pun intended) is also acutely effective for the underground scenes, too. There are many individual shots of characters standing proud from the shadows, lit up by flares or torches with a really mesmerising “pop” that is enhanced tenfold in a room with the lights off. A wide shot of the group spread out around the first cave chamber - someone in silhouette squatting on rocks at the far left, a girl close-up and centre, others dotted around the rest of the frame and all separated by distance and vast pockets of blackness - is remarkable for its handling of light and dark, detail across the full range and depth of field. The effect of faces or creatures moving about or suddenly appearing from the blackness is electrifying. So, for a movie that is set predominantly down in the vast swathes of darkness of subterranean caves, The Descent looks astonishingly vibrant, crisp and three-dimensional.

    A definite improvement over the SD versions, folks.
    The Descent Picture


    The R1 release unbelievably ditched the fantastic DTS track that graced the R2 which, in itself, was enough to warrant ignoring it. But, that glaring omission has been more than rectified with the scintillating PCM Uncompressed 6.1 track that graces this BD release. Actually going better than the awesome DTS track that I had so adored, this mix is simply stunning. Much of what I had said earlier still applies - only much more so!

    The film is still an atmospheric soundscape of eerie ambience - dripping water, skittering stones, anguished panting, chinking metal crampons etc - but these effects are steered impeccably around the set-up, but impacts still deliver a stony oomph to Julyan's jarring score. The sound of rocks sliding and distant echoes is naturalistic and can have you glancing over your shoulder, the PCM supplying extra clarity and depth than you will have heard before. The echoing of voices in the confines of the caves is wonderful, now containing a truly authentic wobble-and-warble as the effect is bounced around you. The skin-crawling hissing and snarling from the creatures is presented with a clarity that will have the hair spiking on the back of your neck and, all the while, the great score swells in all the right places and adds tremendously effective stingers throughout. The sense of space is nicely conveyed when the caves open up a bit, with individual sounds, scrapes and speech well directed around the speakers. And, on the flipside of that, the tight claustrophobia of the queasily intimate scenes is enhanced with an all-enveloping soundscape that seems to brush against your skin.

    It may not be the most bombastic of surround tracks, I mean we have no bullets zipping around or explosions roaring front-to-back, but this is one of the best tracks that I have heard for a horror film and reveals a tremendous amount of well-thought-out engineering and design-work. A good all-round mix, folks, that knows when to simmer and when to explode. For a film that utilises such a claustrophobic setting and such an intense atmosphere, I can't think of a better, clearer or more horribly immersive soundtrack to accompany it. Very impressive indeed. No showboating for the sake of it - which, let's be honest, we all love anyway - just a clinical, incisive, nerve-shreddingly realistic and acutely precision-steered audio presentation that places you in the heart of the blood-chilling onscreen drama. Even the ripping of flesh is accentuated and more sickening than before, as you can check when flipping between the PCM and DD5.1 tracks. Oh, and cringe when Holly's leg makes that awful connection with the outcropping of unyielding rock. In PCM this is truly savage.
    The Descent Sound


    Mostly replicating the extras found on the original R2 release and the Unrated R1, we have on this edition -

    A commentary track featuring Neil Marshall and his cast, followed by another chat with Marshall and the Crew. Both tracks are good fun and very informative, with an attitude that is light-hearted and exceptionally jovial. Anecdotes fly thick and fast - “He kicks me in the head - the bugger!” - and the mood of the film is effectively dissipated with good-natured banter that belies the tension and the drama. Pretty scene-specific and offering a wealth of background trivia, Neil Marshall carries the commentaries like a seasoned pro. Of the two tracks, my favourite would have to be the one that includes the girls as there is a lot more spontaneity and laughter involved. But both still offer great value and repeatability, even they don't quite reach the giddy and daft heights of the cast and crew chat track to be heard on the Dog Soldiers R2 disc.

    The Descent: Beneath The Scenes is a great production expose that runs for 42 mins and covers all the main ingredients that went into the making of the film with a fun-loving, free-wheeling attitude that mixes earthy humour, information-overload and fascinating insight into the cast and crew mindset that Neil Marshall encouraged. With the emphasis on witticisms and wise-cracks, the people involved - the girls, the ghouls, the producers, the special effects team and the director, himself - all have their say in a candid and infectiously enthusiastic style that is diametrically opposed to the tone of the movie that they created. Marshall is quick to point out that the story is as much about the descent into madness as it is a descent into the earth. Amidst all the footage from boot-camp and the prosthetic effects being applied - some great moments here - the cast and crew get to talk about their real-life fears in a series of soundbites that, if I remember correctly, formed the basis of a feature in a well-known UK movie magazine. Some quite ribald humour distances this “making of” from the usual run-of-the-mill fluff that studios bolster their discs with and serves to endear the makers all the more. There is also some brilliant footage of the girls, in character, meeting a crawler in full makeup for the very first time. However, be advised that you should not view this feature if haven't already seen the film. Excellent stuff!

    Then we get a selection of Deleted and Extended Scenes which run for 10.02 mins with a Play All. These scenes are all fully completed in 2.35:1 and in DD 5.1. Mostly they beef up the characters' backstory and there are some nice exchanges of dialogue that enhance the girls and their outlook. There is also a brief and tantalising new shot of a crawler that would have appeared quite early on.

    The Outtakes is 5.10 mins of pure blooper reel material. See a crawler do a Mick Jagger impersonation! See a gore-soaked lesbian kiss! See a very handy EXIT sign that would have helped the girls out no end in the caves! It's all good fun, folks, though hardly hysterical.

    Then we get a new feature entitled DesEnding, which is a new interview with Neil Marshall that was not present on the original R2 release. Lasting for 7 mins, this is really just the director discussing the film's original ending - which is the one that we in the UK have had all along - and how and why this was slightly, but traumatically, reduced for the theatrical run that it received in the States. Basically, this is a simple five line answer that has been stretched out with copious clips from the film's climax and with Marshall quite obviously left hanging by some interrogator who has been given strict instructions to spin this thing out. Thus, the director ends up repeating himself ad infinitum about the whys and wherefores of the climactic cuts.

    The Storyboard and Scene Comparisons last for 10.20 mins and split the screen between a small widescreen snapshot of finished film - with score and dialogue - and an array of drawn storyboards. The feature is nice though hardly revelatory.

    And then we are treated with a Stills Gallery and some Cast and Crew biographies. The stills contain just over twenty images of varying quality and importance that are, sadly, marred by a surrounding border of scratchy artwork that detracts from their power quite considerably.

    All in all, this is a very decent set of bonuses that probes quite effectively behind the scenes of one of modern cinema's most gruelling horror films. And this was where good stuff ended with the SD versions. But here, in the Blu-ray realm, there is even more treasure to found deep down in the caves.

    Not only do we get options to view the Rated and the Unrated versions of the movie, but we get a third option to view something called the Underground Experience. Now, since The Descent was released, we have had BD-Java enhanced interactivity catered for on the Pirates Of The Caribbean discs, but when this movie was transferred over for the high-definition treatment, that capability was not available. So, instead of the more accessible HD picture-in-picture feature, this box-out behind-the-scenes exploration of the production is actually a separate recording - in other words, another version of the film but with these pop-ups already embedded into it. And a great little extra it is, too. The thing is, much of what we learn here has already been covered extensively throughout the other extras, although it is nice to see. Marshall, as usual, takes up the lion's share of the proceedings, but just about everybody else involved does get a look in as well. Some footage from the making-of finds its way into these box-outs too, but this is still certainly well worth taking the time to enjoy. Still, it does feel a little outdated now that Blu-ray can cope better with this type of functionality.

    Then we get something that looks a bit ropey when compared to the rest of the high definition extras. Caving: A High Definition Experience is a nine-minute featurette that takes us a brief trip down into the deep dark. Word-free and no fun for those suffering from claustrophobia, this is tight and eerie - a little taste of the real thing all set to some of David Julyan's more ambient, but no less disquieting, cues from the film. We don't meet anybody on this descent, human or otherwise, but the immersive, you-are-there quality is tangible all right.

    Overall, this is a great set of extras. The BD ports over everything that had previously been released and then adds a couple more. Great value, folks.
    The Descent Extras


    An excellent horror film, The Descent scored very highly with me from the word go. At the cinema it floored me, and on SD DVD it still made me feel incredibly uncomfortable in my own home, with its awesome AV transfer enhancing the terrors. Now on BD, the film is brought to life in an altogether more frighteningly convincing manner, its ultra stylish visuals lifting from the screen with terrific clarity and blacks that are of Stygian-quality. Add to that an utterly amazing PCM sound design and a few new extras and you have a tremendous addition to your collection. Personally, I have both the original R1 and R2 versions and I can say, wholeheartedly, that this version trounces them. So, even if you are in the position of possibly triple-dipping with this title, I would have to say go for it. The upgrade in AV and extras is definitely worth it.

    Neil Marshall is one of the few directors working in the genre who fully understands the mechanics of the horror film and has proved, with this and Dog Soldiers, that he can skilfully operate with both a low-budget sensibility and an incredibly brazen and visceral approach. He has also successfully straddled the “play-it-for-laughs” approach and the deadly serious with equal aplomb and cinematic distinction. Things bode extremely well for his next feature, even if it does seem to have been a long time coming, although he has already set his own benchmark incredibly high.
    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.79

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