MAY 6, 2009
I was bummed about having to run out of The Hills Run Red today without getting to chill outside of the theater with my friends and discuss how fucking good it was, but goddammit, the opportunity to see a sequel to what is hands down my favorite horror movie of the decade wasn’t something I could easily pass up. So as everyone sang their praises (and rightfully so) on the Warner lot, I was sitting in traffic, en route to the first screening of The Descent: Part 2.
I have been accused of wanting to hate movies before I sit down. Hate is a strong word, but I won’t deny that sometimes I dread having to watch a certain film. But I don’t care much for the presumed outcome that I can’t change my tune in these cases. One recent example is Perkins’ 14. I didn’t love it, but being from the director of Dark Ride (a film I DO hate) wasn’t exactly getting my hopes up, and I expected something equally asinine. And the outcome? I said it was my 2nd favorite of the festival (after Autopsy). So there, haters!
Anyway, Descent 2 would fit in that “ugh, this is gonna be painful...” category. Neil Marshall was not directing, nor was he writing, and in fact, I don’t even think his credited role as a producer is anything more than ceremonial. And really, did The Descent need a sequel? What could they do? Bring the monsters out, you lose the claustrophobia. Keep it inside the caves, and you’re making the same movie. Not to mention, the film had two endings, so to pick it up from one would mean betraying the other.
Well, I am happy to say that, for the most part, it actually does work, and works well. The story is essentially Aliens - our female survivor has to act as a guide for a new group, and you can’t really fault with the logic of cribbing the structure from one of the most beloved genre sequels of all time. And both endings are sort of addressed - Sarah gets out (how, we never quite see) like she does in the US ending, but she’s also clearly screwed up (UK ending). You know what eventually happens, but suffice to say that it delivers in the areas that matter. Director Jon Harris (who edited the first film) does good work here - I don’t envy anyone who has to fill Marshall’s shoes. And once it gets going, it’s almost as compelling as the original, with some unexpected, borderline Troma level gore to give it its own identity (not that the first film was bloodless, but you know what I mean).
But that last part contains the problem - “once it gets going”. We know that there are monsters down there, and we know how they operate. A bit too much time is spent getting our team together (a motley crew this time - 2 cops, 3 rescue workers, and poor Sarah, who has amnesia and can’t remember how her friends died) and it seems that even more time is spent traversing the caves until the monsters show. There is a slight attempt to make you think that Sarah may be the bigger problem here, but it’s done away with quickly (and was never really a believable plotline anyway). It worked for the first film, because we had no idea what to expect. But the cat’s out of the bag now, so let’s get cracking.
But the 2nd half, fuck yeah. Not only is it exciting, gory, and scary, but it genuinely feels like an extension of the first film (note the “Part 2”), and not like the cheap cash-in I was expecting. Sarah returns, obviously, but just about every other character from the original “shows up”, albeit in corpse form (it’s the same caves, and it’s only been a day). One of the film’s best scares has a character find the video camera and watch the footage, which includes the reveal that served as one of the best scares in the original. And in turn, the scene ends in an equally impressive scare. And in the film’s most suspenseful setpiece, the still suspended body of one girl (their names escape me) is used as a landing point for a necessary jump across a chasm.
It’s not all “hey we’re a sequel!” moments though. There’s a terrific bit with one of the new characters trapped between some rocks, with a monster trying to get at her. Since she’s trapped, he is essentially acting as her savior by digging the rocks away, allowing her to scramble loose and then... well, I won’t spoil it. But it got the biggest cheer from the audience. I also loved the Sheriff character, who is one of those guys in a horror movie who inadvertently causes half of their problems (sending an ill-timed walkie talkie call to someone who is in the “being quiet so the monster right next to me doesn’t discover me” mode, for example).
In fact, that brings me to my only other complaint about the film: the cast. They’re all good actors, but they’re also all unmistakably "foreign" (the film is set in the US), which is a constant distraction (Sarah’s accent seems even thicker too), as the cast hails from Australia, Ireland, UK, etc (and yes, one American). Plus they’re all unknowns, at least to me (who sees more than his fair share of movies). It’s a sequel to a beloved film - they couldn’t use that to get someone familiar in one of the roles? Like the sheriff - they make him out to be kind of a dick, but he’s still a “good guy”. It would have been more fun if he was being portrayed by a known performer (Brendan Gleeson, I think, would be a good choice).
But in the end, the movie that shouldn’t work actually does. I would stop short of saying I was riveted, but damned if I wasn’t cheering and jumping at all the right moments, and mentally upping my presumed test card score (“fair”) to “good”, which I ultimately bumped again to “very good” after a surprising development turned out to give the film a much better finale than expected. And by finale, I mean, the final scene between humans and monsters. There’s a bit of a groaner final SCENE that sets up a 3rd film, but the stuff before that resonated in all the right ways, so I forgave the lapse in judgment. The movie looked finished to me (it was even on film, very rare for a test screening), but if they are still tinkering, I would suggest losing the final 30 seconds (and the clumsy foreshadowing that preceded it).
I’m not sure what Lionsgate plans to do with the film. I say it’s certainly worthy of a theatrical release, but if they want to send it direct to DVD, it might even fare better. Expectations would be made even lower, and in turn it would be even more enjoyable for those doubters. I knew it couldn’t measure up to the original, but I wasn’t expecting it to extend the original’s legacy by proving that apart from being nearly perfect, it also spawned what so far is a damn good series.
What say you?