Home > Reviews > THE DESCENT – David Julyan

THE DESCENT – David Julyan

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the best received and acclaimed British horror movies in many years, The Descent is the sophomore effort of young British director Neil Marshall, who looks set to become a hot cinematic property in years to come if his first two movies are anything to go by. Following on from his hugely popular debut Dog Soldiers, The Descent is a gut-wrenching, viscerally terrifying, white-knuckle rollercoaster of a movie which manages to terrify its audience despite its deceptively simple plot. After the death of her husband and daughter in a freak car accident a year previously, one-time thrill seeker Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) agrees to visit a gang of her old friends on holiday in the Appalachian mountains for a pot-holing expedition, hoping that rekindling the camaraderie will shake her out of her post-traumatic funk. The group – which includes her best friend Beth (Alex Reid), team leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza), and adrenaline junkie Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) – head off into the hills and, at first everything goes to plan. However, a few wrong turns and a freak accident later, the friends find themselves trapped deep in an underground cave system with no obvious way out. Worse yet, someone – or something – seems to be down there with them.

To reveal more about the nature of the horror lurking deep beneath the Appalachians would do disservice to those who would want to experience this entertainingly petrifying film for themselves – suffice to say that what transpires truly is the stuff of nightmares, especially for claustrophobics. Marshall’s masterful manipulation of light, shadow, texture and sound creates a truly frightening atmosphere, while the close proximity of the sheer rock walls and narrow tunnels make the sense of enclosed oppression almost palpable. Later in the film there is blood, and there are guts, but it what Marshall conceals and implies rather than what he shows that makes The Descent the powerful film it is: after a careful build-up, during which the tension is ratcheted up to almost unbearable proportions, Marshall releases the trigger and doesn’t let up until the closing credits.

As well as Sam McCurdy’s excellent cinematography and lighting, and Danny Sheehan’s unnerving sound design, one aspect of the film which works tremendously well is David Julyan’s original score, a work of similarly slow-building drama which explodes into animalistic anger when required. Director Marshall has a good ear for how film music works in his projects (his previous film, Dog Soldiers, had a superb score by Welsh composer Mark Thomas), but the problem with The Descent, unfortunately, is that in its different contexts, its almost two different scores: it works quite staggeringly well in the film, but is less successful as a standalone listening experience.

Written mainly for orchestra, with carefully augmented synthesisers and almost subliminal vocal work, the bulk of Julyan’s score is made up of layer upon layer of string tones which work alongside and against each other, creating a dense musical palette which constantly shifts and re-shapes itself. As the film begins, the tone is light, almost romantic, but as the focus of the film changes from the relationships of the friends to their desperate fight for survival, so too the tone of Julyan’s score changes to match it: the string clusters become harsher, plaintive brass notes float into the mix, eerie electronics add to the sense of isolation and remoteness. Then, unexpectedly, Julyan launches his orchestra into full-throated dissonant carnage: loud, savage stingers and brutal action cues which scream and wail along with the women whose torment the music accompanies. This is excellent stuff which adds volumes to the effect of the movie – which, ultimately, is what the whole game is about.

On CD, though, the music has less of an impact. The main theme, as heard in the opening “White Water Rafting” and subsequently in “The Mountains”, “Cave Paintings” and “Sarah Finds Beth” is actually rather good: an elegant piece for long-lined, carefully-paced strings chords and hopeful horn notes which echoes the dark tones Julyan employed in his score for Insomnia in 2002, as well as some of Howard Shore’s moodier work, on scores like Before and After or The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a theme which effectively foreshadows the horrors to come, and maintains an appropriately sombre mood despite its superficial attractiveness.

However, cues such as the “Opening” are rooted in the ‘ambient sound design’ field, and are less cues than tense, mood-setters which successfully put the listener on the edge of their seat and in an unsettled state of mind, but offer little in the way of actual musical satisfaction. Most of the middle of the album – from “Into the Cavern” through to “Sarah Makes a Torch” – also follows this lead, and is filled with a vast array of nervous-sounding percussion effects, moaning synths and muted orchestral dissonance. The tinkling piano in “Down the Pipe” is somewhat unnerving, mimicking the incessant drip of underground water, and the huge explosions of sound at the end of “The Tunnel Collapses” and during “The Bone Dam” come as something of a shock – but the best is saved for last.

The dissonance and anguish that was first introduced in “Nightmare in the Hospital”, and which makes a brief guest appearance in “Crossing the Crevasse” comes to a head during the extended action finale. “The Lair” is a masterpiece of tension-building, as Julyan piles on lair upon layer of noise (including a choir) to ratchet up the anxiety to almost unbearable proportions, before it eventually explodes with brutal, potent fury and exciting, rhythmic energy. “The Crawlers Attack” is intense, with Julyan’s orchestra rasping and screaming, and his drums pounding as the protagonists fight for survival. The triumphant finale, “The Descent”, is like being able to breathe again after spending too much time in an enclosed space: the sense of relief in the brass performance of the main theme is palpable… but all is not what it seems. “Alone”, which underscores the British ‘alternate ending’ omitted from the US release, finishes things off on a suitably ambiguous note with a final, downbeat performance of the main theme.

The commercial soundtrack release of Julyan’s score, on the British Cooking Vinyl label coincides with the belated US release of the movie itself into American cinemas, some 18 months after it played in multiplexes in the United Kingdom. Overall, as a fan of the film, I do recommend The Descent: it’s a great example of an effective modern horror score by a composer whose career looks to be on an upward trajectory (especially considering his upcoming work on Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige). While some may be put off by its rather ambient nature, and while others may be dissuaded by its bleak and unremitting darkness, the highs in the score more than outweigh the lows, and will provide 50 minutes of entertaining listening for fans of the genre.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Opening (0:35)
  • White Water Rafting (1:25)
  • Nightmare in the Hospital (0:43)
  • The Mountains (1:54)
  • Drive to the Cave (2:57)
  • Into the Cavern (1:59)
  • Down the Pipe (2:54)
  • The Tunnel Collapses (3:41)
  • Crossing the Crevasse (4:13)
  • Cave Paintings (2:33)
  • Sarah Sees a Crawler (1:32)
  • The Bone Dam (5:20)
  • Reunited With Juno (2:00)
  • Sarah Makes a Torch (2:24)
  • Sarah Finds Beth (2:31)
  • The Lair (3:15)
  • Juno Climbs (0:54)
  • The Crawlers Attack (2:24)
  • The Descent (4:54)
  • Alone (1:27)

Running Time: 49 minutes 42 seconds

Cooking Vinyl CKV-CD-4774 (2006)

Music composed by David Julyan. Conducted by Nick Ingman. Orchestrations by Dana Niu. Recorded and mixed by Steve Orchard. Mastered by Dave Blackman. Album produced by David Julyan.

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