Pass Up On This Second 'Descent'

Directed by: Jon Harris, Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: D+

Let's start our discussion of The Descent 2 by fondly reminiscing about the theatrical experience in watching Neil Marshall's original, The Descent. Through a spelunking trip amid the Appalachian Mountains, a cluster of tough girls find themselves scraping for their lives once they encounter a pack of backwardly-evolved carnivores lurking among the caverns. It's a taut, sweaty-palmed picture that mixes cramped, dank cinematography with brilliant sound design into an atmospheric thriller that extends its appeal even beyond genre fans. This is exactly the kind of filmmaking that first-time director, long-time editor Jon Harris (Stardust) desires to replicate with the second crawl back into the uncharted caverns. He gets the cramped shots and echoing sound effects down, but his reliance on the original's achievements and the shoehorned, simplistic "Horror 101" tomfoolery make this particular expedition a bloody chore.

Harris' sequel leads in directly where the first film (which should be viewed before continuing this review) leaves off, ascribing to the US theatrical cut's assumption that Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) survives the ordeal. This undercuts Marshall's bleak original ending that implies she, a weathered post-trauma mother, sits with a hallucination of her dead daughter, looking at the fire of a birthday cake as the last flickers of lights before beastly noises swarm around her. Here, with wild eyes and drenched in blood, she's picked up by a trucker outside of her escape point and hauled off to a hospital, where police officers inquire about the rest of her climbing partners -- Juno (Natalie Mendoza) in particular, who's apparently the niece of a high-profile politician. Cut to another location in the mountains where an investigative dog-sniffing group finds a different entry point into the harrowing caverns, causing the conflicted crew to decide that Sarah should be scooped up from her hospital bed and dragged back through to find the missing persons.

Once we get beyond the search party arguments and the introduction to new characters, including the bluntly-handled, one-dimensional sheriff Vaines (Gavan O'Herlihy) and a handful of bland expert rock climbers, The Descent 2 finally worms back into the fearsome caverns -- and it's little more than a second-rate, shallow love letter to Marshall's film. Jon Harris' production crew nails down a starkly similar mood amid their United Kingdom locations that closely resembles the original's claustrophobic setting, while also incorporating sites where Sarah and Juno's original crew bit the big one. As accurate and reminiscent as the construction is, it also shows that this second Descent wouldn't be much without the first film as a blueprint. That's down to the Xeroxed scoring, the lighting presence, the infrared camera shots and the gore. In that, the build reeks of borrowed charisma, even if it still gets our blood mildly boiling again due to triggered memories.

The problems arise with the characters, all clearly serving the same purpose as most other new characters in a horror follow-up -- cannon fodder. That's fine, even revered in some circles as a staple of a bodycount flick, but it also goes against the substantial character affinity established in Marshall's original. From the first kill in The Descent, which is a case of friendly fire instead of a beast-incurred death, an electric momentum starts that leads through all the ghastly crawling through the caverns. Here, largely caused by the simple-motive scripting, there are absolutely no bones about seeing any of these folks torn up by the slimy, fang-toothed humanoids that've been beefed up in the grotesqueness department. Whether it's the trio of tightly-knit rock climbers separated by fallen rocks in a race to save one's life or a weepy mother recording a video diary to her daughter in the depths, nothing generates more than a bare spark of empathy and all of it stumbles with slushy realism. And it only gets worse when the attention directs to the gruff, graying older police officer Vaines, who annoyingly bucks authority by bringing a pistol into the caverns and becoming trigger-happy with his handcuffs. Even Sarah's been relegated to little more than a sleeper-agent Rambo this time around.

Is it unfair to expect actual characters from a horror sequel, or should we just expect enough of a framework to cram us back into the Appalachian caves for more bloodshed? Gore-seeking horror fans might have another opinion on the matter, but I'm of the mind that it's about precedent and Marshall's series calls for more than profuse arterial sprays and gross-out gags to mask the weakness of the victims as actual entities. But alas, that's what we've got, and Harris' follow-up has the production chops to make the red stuff paint the walls -- and the skin of the victims -- to convincing extents. Teeth sink into the throats of humans and beasties alike, sending soaking spurts everywhere, but the gargling-on-blood meme halts whatever charm it has left as it repeats over and over. Other gags that highlight the original are tapped to excess, such as the spelunking blade through human skin and the gross-out sensation of seeing Sarah and her "climbing partners" swimming eyes-deep in a small pool of who-knows-what (a scene, by the way, that offers one of the film's more pointless, eyeroll-worthy gross-out sequences).

All the way until the end, which also carries a rather moronic twist, The Descent 2 is a true beat-for-beat rehash of the original, only bloodier to an absurd degree and carrying a slate of unsatisfying outcomes. That's coming from a movie enthusiast picky about his gore-driven horror, where seeing one of the cave-dwelling girls from the first film fall and splinter her leg open made him wince more than the umpteenth laugh-inducing neck tear in its follow-up. Marshall's original had the distinction of reaching beyond its construction as an immensely tight horror feature, largely because of the stellar core filmmaking that resonates through every darkly-lit shot -- making it more than just a horror film, but also a picture about desperation, illusions, solidarity and untapped strength. Harris' spin works more as a snuff film that follows a bunch of human cattle led to feed the carnivorous beasts hiding in the crevices of the Appalachian Mountains, with nary in the realm of suspense.


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