In other DVDTalk reviews, I've frequently written about my love for horror sequels; in particular, I'm fascinated by the (usually unsuccesful) mad scientist-style commercial machine that powers the writing necessary to extend a one-off film into a re-usable formula, as well as the twists and turns necessary to bring back any surviving characters. At a glance, I'm sure The Descent: Part 2 looks exactly like one of those kinds of projects, especially since a sequel is an idea original writer/director Neil Marshall and his cast flat-out laughed at the end of the audio commentary for the original. In execution, the truth is more complicated, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I was not one of those who praised Marshall's film when it first hit American shores. Expectations played a big part: press coming out of the UK was quick to slather "the scariest film ever made" all over the advertising, and combined with hyperbolic internet buzz, I quickly reached a level of anticipation the film couldn't possibly have lived up to. Following my disappointment at a 2005 press screening, I might have just forgotten about it, but the film's level of esteem amongst film geeks has stayed steady since then, and I kept seeing trailers for it on Lionsgate discs, so earlier this year I decided that it was time to give the movie a second try. This time, I really got into it: not only does Marshall create a truly oppressive, hard-to-breathe sense of claustrophobia and helplessness, but he's crafted a whole group of fully formed characters, which is an art that most films, much less horror films, even bother to attempt anymore. That said, unlike some of the sequels I've asked to review, this isn't Cabin Fever: I like The Descent, but the details of the original are still pretty new to me. It's not a movie I've seen to death.
Secondly, it becomes clear that Marshall (credited here as an executive producer) and returning star Shauna MacDonald have worked long and hard to make sure that The Descent: Part 2 is not your ordinary, studio-generated rehash. Almost immediately, the viewer can feel the time and investment put into making sure that the existing groundwork MacDonald's character Sarah has not only respected, but that the journey she's about to undertake is an organic and important part of her story, and it changes the whole experience. With corny sequels, it's easy to rubberneck and speculate on the corporate thought process that, say, sent Jason Voorhees into outer space, but in an industry where multi-part franchises are plotted from the word go, it's a genuine shock to see an unanticipated sequel that isn't just banking on the personality of the actor or the exposition as written into the screenplay to re-conjure the role, and in this regard, the follow-up is the real deal.
Still, however protective Marshall and MacDonald were of their character, the pair still hand control over to The Descent's editor Jon Harris, who's sitting in the director's chair for the first time, and the film develops a split personality between the characters and direction. Harris is a perfectly capable director, but he lacks the command that Marshall had when it came to putting the audience in the environment, and without that crushing sense of isolation, The Descent: Part 2 loses a significant portion of what made the original great. There are several great ideas laid down by the writers: in particular, a scene where Sarah slides into a flooded passageway immediately grabbed me as a fan of the original. Cave claustrophobia underwater? Sounds like an awesome twist on the formula, but in execution, the tunnel is no tighter than a flooded hallway on a sinking ship, which doesn't have the same squirmy, I've-got-to-get-out-of-here intensity.
The story opens when Sarah is discovered wandering the forests near Boreham Caverns, and, amongst indications of temporary, shock-induced memory loss, is taken to a hospital. A rescue team has been scouring the caverns for signs of the missing girls, and upon hearing that one of them has been found, Sherriff Vaines (Gavan O'Herlihy), already under fire for a recent search-and-rescue expedition that didn't go as planned, sees his opportunity to save the day. With his deputy Rios (Krysten Cummings) and a small rescue team (Douglas Hodge, Joshua Dallas, Anna Skellern) in tow, he checks Sarah out of the hospital and takes her back to the caves, in the hopes that she can be of some assistance in finding her missing friends. At first, Sarah remains a blank slate, but as the group heads deeper underground, the lurking presence of some familiar faces starts to jog her memory.
Writers James McCarthy, J Blakeson, and James Watkins start things a bit slower than necessary, and it isn't until Sarah's mental block starts to disappear (around the twenty-minute mark) that The Descent: Part 2 really gets going. When it does, it places plenty of great, nuanced character material into MacDonald's hands, and she's even better at it now than she was in the first movie. The hardened, creature-ready version of Sarah presented here is cold, efficient, and ruthless, and she's so prepared for the worst to happen, she practically conjures up the film's gloomy sense of dread all by herself. Really, MacDonald's commanding performance is enough to elevate the film most of the way to "worthwhile" status all on its own.
The other, new characters are not as well-developed. In addition to the closed-in walls, Harris wants to recreate some of the feminist power of Marshall's movie, and his efforts are again hit-and-miss. There's some effort to build up Krysten Cummings' character Rios as a counterpart to Sarah, and unfortunately, either the character as written or Cummings herself don't quite have the charisma or screen time to create someone nearly as interesting or enduring. Side plot threads, including Vaines' bullishness and a weird local (Michael J. Reynolds) are cliched and distracting, but a significant character twist part of the way through the movie brings things back up again. I imagine many can guess or deduce what happens, but it's good enough that I'll keep it a secret. At the same time, Harris starts amping up the gore in traditional sequel fashion, throwing in handful of tomato-soup-like blood fountains spraying out of wounded humans and cave monsters alike. In general, he has a weird obsession with fluids: blood pours into people's mouths, and there's one particularly disgusting bit that probably sounded satisfyingly icky/darkly comedic on paper, but just seems juvenile in execution.
Taken as a whole, the film is a challenge, and not necessarily in a good way. I liked the ideas and events of each scene in and of themselves, but this material feels detached and isolated from the film itself (especially the ending, which comes out of left field, and weakens the stronger, partially thematic, partially character-based 'conclusion' the film has already achieved). There's plenty of good stuff here, and the best of it runs rings around the crud most sequels trot out, and yet when all is said and done, I find myself wanting to give it a lower grade than some of the more autopilot sequels out there, because Marshall and MacDonald got me to invested only for Harris to ultimately let me down. Most sequels are either sincerely good, or obviously inferior, but The Descent: Part 2 is a legitimate stalemate: it's the hardcore fans who will be eager to see Sarah's journey, and the movie extends it exceedingly well, but will they be able to reconcile that with the problematic movie surrounding it?
I like the artwork Lionsgate has created, although, as someone who has a passing interest in graphic design and happens to write about DVD covers, it is part of a weird tradition in which the title logo of a film looks "fake" on the cover of a sequel. It's clear that whoever designed the cover wanted to create something that would look nice and similar when placed next to The Descent on the DVD shelf, but they didn't quite "integrate" the text and image together or give it that final spit-and-polish, so it looks a bit...computery. Whatever. The disc comes in an ECO-BOX case with no insert, and the disc has a plain gray finish, with the silver disc surface forming the lettering. The whole thing is sheathed in a nice, matte slipcover (with selected glossy bits) that is identical to the art underneath.
The Video and Audio
Lionsgate's standard-def 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks pretty good, although occasionally it appears a bit "harsh" in the digital sense of the word. Also, although I feel as if I say this about so many DVDs, maybe it's just a personal issue (I swear, it's not my TV settings -- I fiddle with them to an obsessive degree), but I also think the contrast has been cranked a bit, because some of the white surfaces just look totally blown out. I'd have appreciated a complementary Blu-Ray release, especially since darkness and shadows are an area I feel high-definition really excels at, but just like Cabin Fever 2, Lionsgate is only offering the title on DVD.
Dolby Digital 5.1 isn't anything to write home about either. As the inside of a cave offers plenty of opportunities, the track frequently attempts to be directional, and it definitely succeeds to varying degrees. Overall, though, the track is on the flat side in comparison to the one prepared for the first movie, which sounded more polished in comparison. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
A reel of deleted scenes (11:19), which are almost all good, and worthy of being cut back into the movie. In particular, I appreciated an alternate opening credit sequence with vocal cameos from Saskia Mulder, Alex Reid, Nora-Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring and Natalie Mendoza, Sarah's terrifying hospital dream, and an extra character beat with Rios and Sarah inside one of the tunnels.
"Deeper and Darker - The Making of The Descent: Part 2" (25:48) is a reasonably well-made little documentary, including comments from Marshall, MacDonald, Harris, and other key members of the cast and crew. On one hand, there's not a wealth of unexpected information to be gleaned here, but on the other, the enthusiasm of those involved actually made me consider watching the movie again, so I guess that ranks as a plus. A storyboard gallery (7:41) closes out the video extras.
Underneath the setup menu, fans will find an audio commentary with Harris, MacDonald, Cummings, and Skellern. It's not quite as funny as the highly-entertaining Marshall-and-cast track from the original, but it's still an entertaining listen. That said, I'm completely enchanted by Shauna MacDonald's low-key British sarcasm, so anyone looking for information will probably be satisfied with the video extras.
Trailers for Daybreakers, After Dark Horrorfest 4, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever [Unrated], Peacock, FEARnet, and Epix play before the main menu. No trailer for The Descent Part 2 (nor The Descent, which you'd think would be a given) is included.
I do think that The Descent: Part 2 devises an interesting and genuinely satisfying path for Sarah, and fans of the original will find the movie worth watching at least once in order to see that journey. That said, I can't vouch as strongly for the movie as a whole, so even though the package is good in the technical and bonus departments, I think I can only advocate a rental, at least at first.
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