Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Film Review: The Descent Part II

I did not expect to love The Descent nearly so much as I did. I'm all for supporting fellow Scotsmen in all their endeavours, and director Neil Marshall certainly fits that bill, but though I can't often resist a bit of up-and-coming cult, his previous film - Dog Soldiers - fell absolutely flat for me. Given that disappointment, I wasn't in any great hurry to see his second movie, but when at last I did give The Descent the time of day, my modest at-best expectations were left in tatters. The best horror movie in years - an atmospheric narrative of spelunking gone awry with truly nightmarish results - had nearly slipped by me without incident.

But I learned a valuable lesson in the process: to come to each tale, be it cinematic, aural or literal, with a clean slate, irrespective of hype and buzz and the like. Of course, it's impossible to set aside your expectations completely - and never more so than with sequels. Especially low-budget, straight to DVD sequels which the key cast and crew have had nothing to do with. And so, we arrive at The Descent: Part II, just such a film; and much to my surprise, a second lesson in the dubious value of expectations.

When Sarah, the only survivor of the events of the first film, emerges from the cave system in which her five friends met their end covered in blood but unable to remember the horror of what occurred beneath the Appalachian mountains, a skeptical Sheriff and his young deputy pressgang her in guiding a search and rescue party on a return journey into the caves.

Of course, things take a turn for the worse almost immediately, but by the time Sarah's memory returns to her, the team are past the point of no return. It's all terribly convenient, really; surely someone could have come up with a better narrative rationale for returning a crew of naive new victims to the memorable setting of The Descent. If you can swallow that, though, there's every chance you'll have a great deal of fun with Jon Harris' sequel. To precisely no-one's surprise, I'm sure, Harris is nowhere near Marshall's equal, but with such huge shoes to fill, he does an admirable job of establishing tension and sustaining an atmosphere in which the scares - or rather, the shocks - come thick and fast.

Harris doesn't manage to stretch his budget quite so far as Marshall, however. The effects are dubious at their best and absolutely laughable at their worst, which is, sadly, as often as not. The unspeakable creatures which dwell in the case system - the very weakest element of The Descent - have more screen time in this second outing, and when you know they're coming and moreover, you can see right through their cheap prosthetics, they make for significantly less effective antagonists. Nor do the cast equip themselves particularly well. As Sarah, Shauna Macdonald looks bored, mugging newcomer Kristen Cummings is obvious and Gavan O'Herlihy as the Sheriff is so one-note and cartoonish it's hard to take the threat he's meant to represent at all seriously.

But you know what? Despite the numerous inadequacies of The Descent: Part II, watching the vast majority of the cast being torn from limb to limb makes for a rather entertaining hour and a half. And a secondary element from the original film take front and center in the sequel: the creatures are blind, and just as soon as Sarah remembers as much, the game changes. While her understanding of the inhuman enemy certainly undermine some of the tension, it opens the door to some interesting story threads that The Descent itself did not explore. The monsters may win in a physical confrontation, but if the surviving so-called rescuers are smart, they need never become involved in one. This new angle on the same-old, same-old single-handedly saves The Descent: Part II from being a complete waste of time.

As I said in my brief preview of Harris' sequel in the second part of Speculative Cinema in 2010, "I'm sure morbid curiosity will drive me to suffer through The Descent: Part II at some point, but I fully expect to wear my mean face through the entire advantageous affair," and yet, I did not; perhaps such low expectations breed pleasant surprises.

In the end, I enjoyed The Descent: Part II significantly more than I'd expected to. By no means is it a great film, nor, perhaps, even a good one - it doesn't come close to eclipsing or even equaling the unbearable tension and claustrophobia that make Neil Marshall's original such a success - but neither does it fall entirely flat. There are grim disembowelments, a few decent scares and a neat, if unexpected and slightly mishandled ending. If that's what floats your boat, by all means, sail away.

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