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Descent finds acclaim at top of horror film list

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, January 17, 2007

While the British excel at many things, creating excellent horror movies is far from the top of the list. Aside from several notable exceptions, British horror tends to be, quite frankly, not scary. Director Neil Marshall, however, is making great strides in reversing the fortune of British horror.

Coming off the 2002 success “Dog Soldiers,” Marshall wrote and directed “The Descent,” which was released to British audiences in 2005, and the summer of 2006 in the United States. “The Descent” not only ascended to the pinnacle of British horror, but was by far the best horror film of 2006.

“The Descent” follows a close group of six adventuresome female friends who frequently take high-risk outdoor vacations together. This time, the women explore an isolated and previously unexplored cave system in the Appalachian mountains.

After experiencing a cave-in they are left to their own devices to find a new way out, only to discover that they are not alone in the caves. The confined spaces and darkness of the caves, as well as the terrifying creatures, lead to a constantly high level of horror.

Of the cast, the movie focuses the most on Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) who, after recently suffering a family tragedy, is trying to get her life back together and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) who recklessly and purposefully led them into the wrong caves to try to bring the women closer together.

When “The Descent” was released in America, it was not the same version that was shown to British audiences the year prior. The original, and albeit darker, ending was edited so that the film ended early, leaving a slightly happier version for American filmgoers. The unrated DVD release of the film is the original director’s cut that was shown in Britain, which includes the longer and darker ending that was previously left out.

The decision to change the ending for the American version became so controversial that the disc includes a featurette in the special features section entitled “DescENDING” in which the reasoning for the change is examined.

Also included in the special features are approximately 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, a fairly humorous blooper reel, storyboard-to-scene comparisons and an almost hour-long “making-of” featurette.

The unrated DVD also has two great commentaries. The first features writer-director Marshall, along with several of the actresses who appeared in the film (Nora Jane Noone, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Shauna McDonald and Alex Reid), and the second commentary features Marshall along with the film’s production crew (producer Christian Colson, editor Jon Harris, assistant editor Tina Richardson and production designer Simon Bowles).

Marshall aptly leads the way in both commentaries, guiding everyone through and giving the others a chance to speak as he reminisces with them and asks several questions. For obvious reasons the commentary track with the crew is more technical, while the one with the actresses is much more anecdotal.

“The Descent” excels at scaring viewers both on the surface level – with monsters hiding in the dark – as well as delving deeper into more psychological fears. Without letting up for an instant, the movie manages to stay a thrilling ride from the beginning until the end.