Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Descent: Part 2

Elegiac and poignant are not adjectives one expects to read in a review for a horror film, but the sequel to Neil Marshall's brilliant 2005 horror film The Descent does something interesting in playing off the events of the first film in order to evoke these emotions. Sure the film is a fun, often flawed Friday-night horror flick, but it's also trying to be something more than that – and even though there's not quite the same amount of character development as the original to give weight to the peril and mayhem the characters go through – for a 90 minute sequel director Jon Harris should be given some credit for almost making the film a success. There are pay-offs in the film that don't work, repetitive set pieces, and an ending that is atrociously bad; however, warts and all, The Descent: Part 2 is still a visceral experience that outdoes anything we've seen from the genre since Marshall's original film, and it even slows down for a few moments so that the story can compound on the sadness from the first film, all culminating in making this sequel a better horror experience than its straight-to-DVD American release would suggest.

The film picks up where the first one ended (well kind of, this film asks us to disregard the ambiguity and sadness of the first film's final moments) with Sarah (Shauna McDonald reprising her role) showing up on the roadside in the Appalachian Mountains and kick-starting a search and rescue mission to find her missing friends. There's your plot, your entry point into what is essentially a rehash of the first film with a few intriguing ideas that never get fleshed out. The idea for a sequel as first seemed asinine to me, but what Harris does with the film is interesting enough – especially when considering the possibilities of a police investigation of what happened, briefly taking the film out of the context of horror – but it never builds on that interesting premise and instead jumps head first into your typical horror film where a search and rescue group and Sarah head back into the cave to find her friends. Okay, but what about the set-up? We know that bad things will happen to these people when they get down there, so why should I care about them dying? What are their relationships to one another?

These kinds of questions get tossed aside in the name of rehashing all of the same weird-things-happen-in-the-cave type stuff from the first one, but they happen without the weight of actually caring about the characters. When the characters are in peril, or need to be left behind because they're trapped in some rocks, or lose their way from the group, the film slows down within the moment to give us the touching musical score (from the first film, which was quite good) and remind us that we should feel sad right now, but something feels amiss since we don't quite have the background we need to care about these characters.

Another interesting idea the film only kind of broaches is whether or not Sarah is insane after her experience. When the group first gets down in the cave Sarah is silent (for obvious reasons since the "crawlers" hunt on sound) and takes on some of the physical characteristics of the "crawlers" (the first death scene is a doozy) . Was it all in her head? Did she in fact think that the calcium deposits in the cave where the "crawlers"? Again, all kind-of interesting questions that are never fully explicated in the film because it's more interested in being a visceral entertainment, instead of trying to be both like the first film.

Aesthetically the film is repetitive and therefore not very interesting to look at (even though it's not bad to look at except for the oft phony looking cave set) and lacks the innovative and interesting horror allusions Marshall littered his original film with. However, there are some intriguing moments in the film like when two members of the rescue party scale the cave by leaning back-to-back so that the "crawlers" don't get them, and as they get out through a crevice they happen upon one of the previous spelunkers who tried to get across from one side to the other (this leads to an inspired fight scene). There's also a moment when the search and rescue team happen upon one of the previous film's most nightmarish locations and find the video camera that Sarah used. As they watch the footage of the dead girls before getting to the footage shot in the cave the viewer is reminded of the Picnic at Hanging Rock poignancy set up in the original film where you have these beautiful women who – to the outside world – have disappeared mysteriously. The scene is shot in a way – with Sarah, who has run off from the search and rescue party, slouching behind a rock listening to the voices of her dead friends ring out from the camera – that reminds the viewer of why the first film worked so damn well at evoking more than just fear and dread and horror. This moment of the film is what causes me to open this review with words like poignant and elegiac because as we go back into the cave with Sarah we can't help but be reminded of the loss of her friends.

There is, however, one plot development that fans of the first film will no doubt roll their eyes at (SPOILER) and almost brings the last part of the movie to a screeching halt: Juno is still alive. Yes, the woman Sarah left for dead and we too assumed was done for as she was surrounded by "crawlers" helps save the day in the sequel. I can imagine if fans of the original gathered to watch this in a theater there would be a collective "ugh" in the crowd. Harris does a good enough job of showing Juno to be more like a "crawler" than human when we first see her, but again…I want to know what this suggests: how did she survive? Is she a cannibal now? Is she sane? What does her survival suggest about Sarah? Again, Harris abandons these more intriguing plot threads in order to keep the brusque pace of the film going, and I can't help but think that this film could have been so much more than just a sequel.

Despite these disappointments with the story, and a final bit of punctuation that is all kinds of stupid (and doesn't befit the mood the original established), The Descent: Part 2 is as good a horror film that's been released since the original. That's more of a damning claim on the genre as a whole than the film, but nevertheless it's worth checking out for its visceral appeal and its gushy, squishy gore effects and extreme violence – which by the way director Harris definitely was a Fulci fan as we get a drill through the head a la City of the Living Dead and a pick-ax through the mouth a la The House by the Cemetery – and intriguing enough story threads to keep fans of the original happy enough during the film's economic running time. The acting and the character development aren't nearly as good as the original, but I don't think Harris was interested in making a sequel that aspired to be more than what we get (he certainly isn't trying to recapture the magic of Marshall's film), and for that I can't hate on this sequel too much. Fans of the film should see it, though, as I was pleasantly surprised that despite erasing all of the ambiguity of the first film, The Descent: Part 2 didn't frustrate the hell out of me.


  1. I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. The fatal flaw is not getting Marshall back to do this one and you can feel it every frame of this film. It feels slapped together and I was shocked at how bad the acting was. Painful is a word that comes to mind. Not to mention i didn't find it scary at all. Something that you can't say about the first film. I can see why this film was released direct-to-video and I'm sure we'll see it on the SyFy Channel in no time.

  2. Hey, J.D., sorry this took so long for me to get back to. I feel like I should clarify here better than I did in my hastily written review: I think the movie works as a standalone horror film. Harris does a good enough job of keeping things viscerally entertaining even though we're seeing essentially the first film again (except it has been gutted of all its characters development).

    So, as a modern horror film I think it's a pretty good Friday night popcorn movie; however, when held up against its predecessor, one of the great horror films of all time, it really is a 90 minute pile of shit. But I'll give it a pass because Harris (who edited the first film) has an eye for action and gore and how it use it effectively...it's just the whole shitty "mountain man feeds the crawlers" thing at the end that I think makes the film come off worse than it really is.

    Sure, Sarah isn't really given anything to do...but I kind of liked how Harris just throws us right in...because it was clear from the start that he wasn't interested in delving into the deeper psychological questions this film film definitely has in it...he just wanted to make another gooey, gory, and gushy horror film that seems to fit nicely with mood of the last half hour of the first film.

    I do think, despite that AWFUL ending and some obvious flaws here and there, that the film deserved better than a straight to DVD release here in the states.

  3. I prefer the first film, which frankly is one of the most hair-raising and terrifying films in recent memory, and one that I always bring up with people when discussing the genre. I intend on placing THE DESCENT prominently on the WitD horror poll (the 50 greatest horror films of all-time) that will run from the beginning of August and run till nearly Halloween, and will purportedly be chaired by Jamie Uhrer and two boys from the west coast with the last name of Olson.
    There certainly is a visceral quality to this second film, and your review has convinced me to see it a second time in preparation for the poll. As always, an authoritative essay!

  4. Ha Kevin, that last comment was from me, but the name at google is messed up!


  5. Thanks, Sam. I look forward to contributing to the horror poll. I'm honored that you would have Jamie consider us to help him out. The Descent will certainly place near the top. As for the sequel...welllll it has its moments where you can see a good enough film in there, but it really only succeeds as a popcorn entertainment.

    This summer will feature non-stop horror reviews as I prepare for the WitD poll. I have approximately four week until I am done with work and school for the year and can once again devote some time to the blog. Until then...

  6. Well, I saw it, and I enjoyed it - even though it's much inferior to the classic original. As you say, the film is poignant in how it takes you back to the original - especially with the musical score. Also, the aerial shots of roadways through the forests, but those shots get too numerous.

    I liked the use of the camcorder. I jumped when the first hadal appeared. And it's quite gripping when that one woman is trapped in the rocks and the thing is digging to get after her - claustrophobia and monster-fear in one.

    In glaring contrast with the original, the scenes are lit-up more, which is nice sometimes for following the action but takes away from the atmosphere. Also, the hand-to-hand fighting proceeds at a much slower speed - a bit too slow.

    I didn't mind you-know-who's appearance. She's kind of awesome, and her survival is sort of believable.

    But a plot inconsistency that bugged me is that in the original when Juno falls from the character dangling from the cavern roof, she lands in water. So what gives with #2? No water?

    Anyway, fun review on a mostly fun movie.

  7. Forgot to mention one of the main points I wanted to make - that the whole rescue mission gets going on a totally unbelievable premise: Here they have this inarticulate survivor who has amnesia and the sheriff says, "Get her dressed and get her in the car." Yeah, right. I expected more of an Aliens type motivation - come back down with us and face your fears.

    Nevertheless, once they get going, I didn't worry about that contrivance.

    Also, the making-of extra for The Descent is amazing (just okay on the D2 DVD) - showing how they built rather small sets and achieved such a sense of being far underground with simple fabricated spaces and dark lighting.

  8. Hokahey:

    Thanks for the comment. In reply to your second comment I found it pretty annoying that they lit the sequel so much. The sets looked too fake, and the filmmakers didn't rely on darkness or tight spaces enough. I too agree with your sentiment about thinking the sequel was going to be an Aliens like motivation for Sarah. Sadly, they remove every bit of Ellen Ripley from her and she basically does nothing the whole movie.

    Ultimately an entertaining popcorn movie if not wholly disappointing because it was so obviously a missed opportunity to piggy-back on the original.

  9. According to me, this is the good horror film. There is some confusion in this film that i didn't get that's why I want to watch this film once again.