Review Date: August 8, 2010
Released by: Lionsgate
Release date: April 27, 2010
Widescreen 2.35 | 16x9:
I have a confession to make: I wasnít a fan of The Descent
. In fact, I hated it. I thought it was slow with uninteresting and unsympathetic characters and it quickly eschewed the one thing it had going for it, the genuinely claustrophobic early scenes, in favour of booga-booga jump scares and endless chases through caves that all looked the same. It had pretensions of being a character drama but a movie about spelunkers running afoul of flesh eating cave dwellers is an awkward story on which to hang such a story, and it simply didnít work.
I am in the minority in my opinion: The Descent
was a critical success from minute one and, while it didnít exactly set the world on fire in terms of box office performance, it was certainly a respectable hit. Following its release on home video it gained an even more sizable following and has been all but enshrined as a modern classic. In a genre where $1 in profit almost guarantees a sequel, it was no surprise when a follow up to The Descent
was announced. Although released in theatres in the UK and Europe The Descent Part 2
arrives in North America as a direct to video rather than theatrical feature. Usually this would be an indication of a sub par sequel thatís being abandoned by its distributor. Is The Descent Part 2
deserving of the lack of faith Lionsgate seems to be showing in it? Not at all, as it turns out.
The silence of a still mountain morning is broken by the shrill cry of a bloodied and hysterical woman stumbling onto the road. Sarah (Shauna MacDonald
), the survivor of an ill-fated spelunking expedition is rushed to hospital. A rescue operation is quickly mobilized to find her missing companions, but as the search stretches on into its third day with no sign of survivors authorities begin to get desperate. One of the missing girls, Juno (Natalie Mendoza
), is the daughter of a senator and every minute that passes without her being discovered means the pressure on Sheriff Vaines (Gavan OíHerlihy
) mounts. In desperation, and suspicious of the nearly catatonic survivor, he orders Sarah rousted from her hospital bed and takes her back to the mine that leads to the cave system where the women disappeared.
The group is not long in the cave before they run afoul of the same sort of pitfalls Sarah experienced just days earlier: claustrophobic cave collapses, double crosses and, oh yeah, flesh eating albino cave dwellers. In seemingly no time at all, the rescue team is whittled down to two surviving girls: Sara and sympathetic deputy Rios (Krysten Cummings
). Covered with the blood of their comrades and the excrement of flesh eating monsters, the two must battle their way uphill to light, fresh air and safety.
Sequels have long been a staple of the horror genre. As early as the 1930ís Hollywood was franchising its horror properties to mixed results. While there have certainly been sequels that are unqualified successes, masterpieces even, there are even more that are simply terrible. Even more films fall into a middle ground than into either of those extremes. The Descent Part 2
is undoubtedly a shameless cash-in but then again all sequels are, pretty much by definition. Far more important than a sequelís originality is its energy and its willingness to up the ante: more action, more gore, more death and more boobs. By that metric The Descent Part 2
delivers on all counts (except the boobs).
The Descent Part 2
doesnít really add anything to the first film. Like most horror sequels itís more remake than genuine follow up and employs all the same kind of script contrivances youíd expect from a slasher sequel. Thatís not a criticism so much as an observation. The horror genre is rife with the sequels that are superficially rehashes, but actually do their predecessors one better. Surprisingly, The Descent Part 2
falls into that category. It tells largely the same story but in a more streamlined way and with a greater sense of urgency to the storytelling. The first filmís greatest liability was its sluggish pace in the first act. The second film begins with characters under the gun and it doesnít waste time getting the characters into the cave.
The approach to Part 2
is do the same thing as the first, but do it better. Thatís probably the best approach one could do in sequelizing a film like The Descent
. They wisely didnít try to focus more on the creatures. How much could you expand the mythos of the pasty cave dwellers? They lack a discernable culture or social hierarchy and donít seem to have much in the way of intelligence. Trying to explore them would be like giving the shark in Jaws
motivation beyond: ďeat food.Ē Taking them out of their element wouldnít work, either. What makes them scary is that, since they donít rely on their eyesight, they have a sensory advantage in the cave. Bringing them above ground would reverse the advantage in favour of the humans and destroy the dynamic that underpins the whole premise. The filmmakers had to contrive some way to get new victims into the cave and the conceit they came up with is as serviceable as any. No points for originality, but then I wouldnít characterize the first Descent as blazingly original, either.
Director Jon Harris shows promise with his debut feature. He has a good control of pace and a refreshing lack of pretence. Too often, however, his camera work telegraphs the scares. He also has a habit of filling the screen with a lot of empty space, which undermines the sense of claustrophobia that heís trying to build. The most effective scenes in both films are composed so that the actors are crammed into a small space in the centre of the screen and surrounded by ever narrowing caverns and crawlspaces.
Shauna MacDonald, looking more than a bit like Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Part 2
), is given little to do besides look pensive and glower meanly. She seemed like a good actress out of her element in the first film, so I actually welcomed the sidelining of her character in favour of new additions like Vaines or Rios, who have a lot more to offer in the way of personality. The film wisely doesnít try to manufacture conflicts between the characters beyond what the plot mechanics require. It doesnít try and force us to like or dislike any particular character. I would have liked to see the awesome Gavan Oí Herlihy given a bit more to do, but he owns what little screen time he has. Overall, thereís a more diverse group of characters that are easier to discern, if for no other reason than they arenít constantly bathed in red light and arenít all wearing near identical climbing gear.
While I find it superior in construction and execution to the original Descent
, I have to admit that it lacks the same professional veneer of the first film. Direct to video sequels are usually given away by their half assed colour timing and sound design. The Descent Part 2
was intended as a theatrical feature but it seems like at some point along the line the decision was made to cheap out on post-production. While The Descent Part 2
is better than most films in the DTV crowd it has been relegated to, it still falls short of the polish the first film exhibited. However, technical credits are about the only area where the original has the advantage.
A huge complaint even the originalís most ardent defenders had with the theatrical version was the ending. That was rectified on the DVD release with the restoration of the original UK ending. I donít think any ending really worked, but I have to admit that an even stupider one waits at the end of Part 2
. Itís arbitrary, makes no sense, and is nothing more than a cynical way to leave the film open ended. No doubt a Part 3
is forthcoming, though there doesnít really seem to be anywhere to take the series from here. By the end, the second film has played out the already thin premise.
While the film itself was better than expected, the video quality falls right in line with what could reasonably be expected from a DVD. Overall, the image tends towards a softer look; fine detail is okay in the bright scenes but sorely lacking once the action moves underground. Itís a dark film, but the inky black shadows are well rendered with a minimum of noise or compression artefacts although background detail is largely missing. Occasionally it looks like the image has been artificially lightened with all the expected noise as a result. There are also a lot colour banding issues, noticeable in the underwater shots as well as when particles are floating in the shafts of light. The Descent Part 2
is a cut above the quality of most direct to video features, but would still greatly benefit from the increased resolution of a Blu-ray release.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track featured on The Descent Part 2
also lacks the atmosphere of the original film. DTV features tend to economize by skimping on the sound design and The Descent Part 2
is no exception. The sound field is pretty barren, lacking in range and ambiance. The kind of dripping water and echo effects that youíd expect to hear in a damp old cave are almost totally missing. The surrounds do come alive somewhat during the action scenes. The score is full of typical rum-dum-dummy false excitement cues, atmospheric droning and jump inducing stingers.
Much like the technical credits, the supplemental package thatís been assembled here can best be described as ďadequate.Ē
First up, we have an audio commentary by director Jon Harris and cast members Shauna MacDonald, Krysten Cummings & Anna Skellern. To be honest I found it really hard to sit through. I donít have a problem with even the thickest of English accents, but the participants spend a lot of time talking over and correcting one another. That sort of thing is hard enough to understand when the accents are North American, but the English accents make it really difficult to understand them most of the time. I only listened for about a half an hour before I turned it off. A subtitle option for the commentary would have been a really asset.
Next is Deeper and Darker: The Making of The Descent Part 2
(25:49). Despite the generous running time, thereís not much exciting here. Itís about half talking heads interspersed with clips from the film proper and half behind the scenes footage that offers a peek at the cost effective, low tech special effects. Most interesting revelation: Neil Marshall reassembled the deceased members of the original cast to film brief home video footage for use in Part 2
. Thatís an admirable level of attention to detail.
Also included is the obligatory collection of Deleted Scenes. The handful of short deletions runs 11:20 and is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Theyíre largely redundant though might make the premise a bit clearer for viewers not familiar with the first film: alternate opening and ending credit sequences to bookend the movie a little more restrainedly than the silly shock ending on the feature and scenes removed from the first act that reiterated plot points from the first, established the set up for the second and added a bit more character development. Thereís a really terrible scene with the hospital receptionist that they really should have been embarrassed to include at all. Gorehounds will be disappointed: thereís not much in the way of extra grue except for a brief dream sequence that telegraphs a late film plot revelation (which is not much a surprise when you stop to think of it). Considering that Part 2
ís greatest asset is its swift pace itís not hard to see why these scenes were cut.
Finally thereís a Storyboard Gallery. Not much to say about that except, oddly, the gallery here is animated. Viewers interested in reading the storyboards will need to have their finger ready on the pause button.
Despite lacking some of the technical polish of The Descent
, Part 2
compensates with stronger characters, a snappier pace and a more honest attitude about what it is and what it wants to accomplish; it sees no shame in being a creature-feature and just tries to be as good a one as possible. Itís this lack of pretension that elevates Part 2
above the first in my estimation. Iím sure the legions of fans of The Descent
will dissent on my evaluation and I donít really think theyíll enjoy Part 2
as much as I did. However, if youíre bewildered by the high esteem that people tend to hold the original Descent
in, you might want to give Part 2
a rental, at least until a proper Blu-ray is issued.
Movie - B-
Image Quality - C+
Sound - C+
Supplements - B
- Running Time - 1 hour 32 minutes
- Rated R, 14A
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- French Dolby Digital 5.1
- English SDH subtitles
- Commentary with Director Jon Harris and Actors Shauna MacDonald, Krysten Cummings & Anna Skellern
- Making of The Descent: Part 2: Deeper and Darker
- Storyboard Gallery
- Deleted Scenes