“Chicks with Picks” or “Babes in a Cave”? Whatever you call it, it was one of the biggest horror success stories of the last year – Neil Marshall’s terrific women vs. nature vs. monsters thriller arrived in US theatres one year after a successful summer 2005 UK run, riding a strong marketing campaign from Lionsgate and some of the best reviews a genre movie has received in the last ten years – even self-admitted horror haters enjoyed its thrill ride scares. The success was only slightly tempered by an idiotic decision by the studio to tamper with Marshall’s wonderfully nihilistic ending – an ending, incidentally, which gave a double meaning to the film’s title, and had been foreshadowed throughout the film – by cutting it ridiculously short, a decision seemingly made only to lighten its depressing mood. The overall reaction from audiences was either outrage that, yet again, American fans had been underestimated by the U.S. studios, who somehow believe that Yanks can’t handle the full-strength version of overseas fright flicks, or simple confusion, since the aborted climax was so sudden that most viewers left the theater without even being sure of what had actually happened.
Thankfully, that one fly in an otherwise delectably poisonous ointment has been washed away forever, with the recent release of The Descent: Original Unrated Cut on DVD, which restores the original, nasty British ending. Your best bet is the great-looking, widescreen 2.35:1 disc of the original version (useless pan & scan and theatrical cut discs also exist, so buy carefully), which includes all the supplemental features originally produced for a two-disc DVD released earlier in England (more on those later) and a gorgeous film transfer.
As for the movie? What can I say that hasn’t already been written about this perhaps familiar, but totally entertaining and extremely well-made claustrophobic chiller? A superior follow-up to his acclaimed 2002 soldiers-versus-werewolves movie Dog Soldiers, The Descent features a solid ensemble cast of young actresses as a group of friends and adventurers who gather for a therapeutic weekend of socializing and caving, and to help one of them recover from the loss of her husband and daughter in an auto accident (a startling film-opening gore sequence). What starts as a fun expedition becomes truly desperate when they discover that there are creatures lurking out there in the blackness, first observing the group and then preying upon it from the unseen dark, and the women must gather the strength and courage to fight back against their attackers, if there is to be any hope of survival.
The Descent takes the simplest and most over-used horror plot – introduce a few characters, put them into a situation where they’re uncomfortable, and then unleash something lethal in the dark with them – and updates it by sheer expertise, if not innovation. Marshall and his crew’s technical skills are highly accomplished, ranging from their low-budget use of the same re-dressed cave set for many scenes to the low-light photography throughout the film, which not only maintains the mood throughout but also makes it much easier for some very basic “spring-loaded cat”-type scares to succeed. Marshall’s screenplay quickly introduces and distinguishes between the characters, but because he makes all of them likable in some way, despite their flaws, it’s a shock when they start dying off or getting injured. (Although the love triangle back story between two characters could have easily been dropped without sacrificing anything in the film.) And, as many have said, the movie is actually quite terrifying long before the monsters appear, so expertly have the filmmakers set up the tension of the pure caving sequences, playing on the audience’s claustrophobia and priming them to scream their heads off, practically on cue. The combination Marshall is able to create of shock scares and more atmospheric chills – a dread-filled “what’s out there?” feeling – is truly skilled and deserving of all the acclaim that’s been heaped on him.
He’s also clearly a movie fan (see if you can count the Deliverance references in the film, for instance), and his enthusiasm for the horror genre is palpable, particularly in the supplements on the disc. He’s on two separate commentaries, one featuring most of the main actresses, and another with key crew members. The former is the more entertaining of the two, as it quickly develops into a giggling round of sex jokes and self-deprecating comments by all. Marshall also appears throughout a forty-minute production featurette with the usual puff but also some great peeks at the low-rent cave sets without lighting and dressing – it’s amazing how good they look on film considering how flimsy they seem in the video footage. There’s a short blooper reel, and some deleted and extended scenes (nothing revelatory other than an additional early appearance by one of the crawlers).
Sadly, since the original two-disc edition from Britain has been condensed onto a single disc, the former’s outstanding uncompressed DTS audio track had to be removed for space reasons. Unique to the American disc is a short interview featuring Marshall on a couch explaining what the reasons were for using the shorter ending in the U.S. He actually seems to be putting the best spin he can on the situation, saying simply that the Lionsgate version tested better than the original cut. (With audience testing being the preeminent way that studio marketing departments make their decisions these days, there was no other possible outcome for him.) True genre fan that he is, though, he affectionately calls the U.S. version his “Texas Chain Saw Massacre ending” and likens the UK one to Carpenter’s The Thing. Gotta love him.