Collins’ Crypt: In Defense Of THE DESCENT: PART 2

BC comes to the aid of a much-maligned sequel.

There aren't many modern horror films I respect more than Neil Marshall's The Descent - it's pretty damn close to a perfect exercise in scaring an audience. As I've said in the past, the movie is pretty terrifying even before the crawlers show up, thanks to the claustrophobic setting and the jump scares revolving around the accident that claimed the lives of our heroine's family. It's scary, suspenseful and gory - most horror films don't even try to accomplish all three, and far too many have enough trouble managing to work in even one of those areas.

So I must hate 2009's The Descent: Part 2, right? Marshall only returned as a producer with the original film's editor Jon Harris taking over directorial duties, the cast was typically split between men and women (unlike the first film's all-female approach), and really, how much more could they milk out of this concept? Well, it's not a perfect film by any means, but considering how high the bar had been set by the original and that it was from an editor making his first (and, of this writing, last) directorial effort, it's amazing that the film is even good enough as background noise, let alone a solid followup. I saw it at a test screening in the summer of 2009 back when Lionsgate was seemingly planning on a theatrical release (it was even on 35mm!), but in a day its DTV fate might have been a good thing - expectations would be lowered, and folks could be even more impressed.

Taking cues from both Aliens and Halloween II, the sequel picks up right where the first left off, albeit with some minor retconning regarding how Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) got out of the cave system*. Turns out Juno, the friend who was screwing Sarah's husband (and inadvertently to blame for her family dying), is the niece of some politician and thus the local police are very keen on finding her and the other missing girls. So Sarah - who is in shock and can't remember what happened just yet - is forced to join a couple of cops and some rescue workers and head down to the caves, in hopes that her memory will be jogged and Juno can be found. As you can expect, the crawlers show up, and things don't turn out too well for the bulk of the cast.

One thing that I really appreciated about the movie was that it really was a "Part 2", in that apart from the earlier retconning (which is explained on the commentary, there was a real reason for it but it got lost along the way) it strongly connects to the first. And not just because it picks up directly; the video camera is found and provides us with new footage of the original cast (who all returned just to shoot these little scenes), as well as a reprise of one of its best scares (followed by Harris' own take on the same idea, which works pretty well). Even more interesting is that the bodies of some of the friends are found, which gives the film one of its ickier and more terrifying sequences - our new characters have to use Sam's body, still hanging over a large chasm, to get across.

And there's one other returning character, probably spoiled by now (on the DVD's deleted scenes, we see the film originally had a full opening title sequence that it now lacks, which also gave it away) but if not I'll refrain from revealing who it is. It's easy to roll your eyes at it, but if you watch the original you'd see their "death" was left ambiguous, and so it's not really all that far-fetched. Plus it allows the film to retain some of the original's emotional center, which was obviously not as prominent - Sarah's tragedy had been dealt with, and she had settled her beef with Juno, so there's not much left to her story. One of the rescue workers has a daughter that she is afraid of leaving behind, so that gives Sarah another layer, but otherwise, without this surprise return, the movie would just be a monster-fest.

Luckily, if that were the case, it'd still be a pretty entertaining movie. My only real complaint regards the stupid final scene, but since we never got the third film it seemed to be setting up, it's easy enough to ignore now. Harris may not be the expert craftsman Marshall is, but he still stages some pretty nifty sequences, and the movie rarely bores once they're in the caves (it takes about 25 minutes for them to get back below, which is still better than the test screening version where it was closer to 40). There's a pretty terrific bit where a rescue worker is trapped in a tunnel thanks to a cave-in, only to be "saved" by a crawler, digging a hole to get at her - there must be a "stuck between a rock and a hard place" joke in there, right? And while it's hard to top Sarah hiding in a pool of blood, the equivalent moment is admirably gross once Harris reveals the source of the liquid they're submerging themselves in (it ain't blood). In fact he seems to love grue - I usually argue with the idea of a sequel being gorier for the sake of being gory, but I had no choice to admire the splatterific moments Harris would offer from time to time (like when Sam's suspended corpse spills blood over the hero using it to get across). Sure, there isn't anything as scary as the great jump scare at the window in the original, and you can't help but feel some deja vu, but again - it'd be nearly impossible to measure up to the original, as far as I'm concerned, so to make a solid effort is good enough for me.

Speaking of effort, they certainly made a lot to ensure we were aware that this wasn't a studio cashing in on the title and nothing else. In addition to all six women returning, the movie shares DP Sam McCurdy, composer David Julyan, production designer Simon Boyles, and (obviously) the same editor as the original, as well as many of the FX artists and such. Hell even the casting lady was the same! Especially in Lionsgate's realm, there are horror sequels that aren't even in the same sub-genre as the original, so for a "DTV" followup to have this much consistency is impressive, and should be an indicator that the crew cared enough to come back for more even without Marshall calling the shots.

The list of "immediate followup" sequels is a mixed bag, and also pretty rare. For all their continuity, the Saw films never really did the direct followup (unless you count Saw IV since it takes place simultaneously with III); there might be a scene to solve a cliffhanger but otherwise it'd be weeks/months later. Halloween II is probably the most well known/beloved, but it's too noticeably different from the original (Jamie Lee's wig is hard to ignore) for me to really buy it as a continuation of the same night. Hatchet II is pretty good but the change of actress for the ONE SURVIVING CHARACTER throws it off (Hatchet III picks up right from II and even with a new director it actually flows better). The Phantasms usually did it to varying degrees of success, and the first three Friday the 13th sequels actually all take place in the same week - but I'm not sure anyone from part 4 actually realized that about part 2. In other words, there's always SOMETHING throwing it off, but Descent 2 is pretty much 99% successful with its attempt to bridge the movies and compress the timeline despite a long period (three or four years) that had passed in between the productions.

When I think about the first sequels to my favorite horror movies, there's usually an asterisk - I like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 a lot now, but that wasn't the case when I first saw it, and my appreciation for Scream 2 only really grew when I saw how bad Scream 3 was. The Descent Part 2 is the rare one that surpassed my expectations on my first viewing - it's not a "must-see" or anything, but if you give it a chance you might be surprised how enjoyable it is, and appreciate the bonus 90 minutes you get to spend down in the caves with these terrifying monsters.

*As most fans know, the original film has two endings: one where Sarah gets out, one where her escape is revealed to be a hallucination as she is still stuck in the cave, presumably a. insane and b. never getting out. The sequel basically goes with both endings - she's out but she's clearly not right in the head.