Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Descent 2 proves fairly decent for straight-to-DVD

Posted By on Tue, May 4, 2010 at 7:00 PM

click to enlarge 'DESCENT 2'S' SHAUNA MACDONALD. This will totally be my next Facebook profile pic.
  • 'DESCENT 2'S' SHAUNA MACDONALD. This will totally be my next Facebook profile pic.

The Descent 2 skips a prime opportunity to coin one of those wonderfully awkward sequel titles. How could a straight-to-DVD feature resist the urge to employ a memorable moniker like Descent II: The Re-Descent or Descent Part Deux: Descending Deeper? Or maybe class it up by dropping the digit, as in The Descent: Curse of the Crawlers?

Unexpectedly, The Descent 2 arrives on DVD as more than a chunk of processed cheese. Maybe not much more -- perhaps comparable to some fresh mozzarella suitable for a pizza topping. While a mere shadow of the original horror film from 2005, the sequel turns out to be neither an outrageous rip-off nor a waste of time. That may sound like faint praise, but when original DVD genre flicks tend to be dominated by the likes of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, The Descent 2 stands out like, say, one of its avenging heroines surrounded by cannibal bat boys. Since the first film's altered ending set the stage for the follow-up, spoilers for the original Descent (but not many for the sequel) appear after the cut.

The first Descent depicted six athletic female friends who reunite for an outdoorsy vacation (assuming that an uncharted Appalachian cavern counts as "outdoors"). Amid the dangerous spelunking scenes, tensions arise from both the spectacle of man woman vs. nature and the group dynamics: protagonist Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) grieves over the anniversary of her daughter's death, while "Alpha Female" Juno (Natalie Mendoza) wrestles with guilt over having an affair with Sarah's husband. Director Neil Marshall builds suspense and characterization so well that The Descent almost disappoints when the women are attacked by blind, subterranean freaks, nicknamed "Crawlers," who track based on hearing.

In American theaters, the film ended with Sarah's screaming emergence from a hole in the ground. She stumbles through the woods, finds the group's car, drives to the highway, rests behind the wheel - and is shocked to see Juno in the passenger seat! And... scene! Juno had been left for dead with no means of getting there ahead of Sarah, so the sequence looked like what it was: a hallucinatory fake-out. In the original U.K. ending, Sarah awakens to find herself in ht dark, where she sees her deceased daughter beside a birthday cake lit with candles. The camera tracks back to reveal Sarah deep underground, surrounded by approaching crawlers. Although a less hopeful ending, to say the least, it's a powerful expression of Sarah's scarred psyche.

To exist, The Descent 2 wants Sarah alive, so it essentially re-stages the through-the-woods escape, leaving out Juno's impossible reappearance. A good Samaritan finds Sarah, and she ends up hospitalized, anaesthesized and stricken with post-traumatic memory lost, so she doesn't remember what happened to the rest of the group. Demonstrating the first of a stunning series of bad decisions, a small-town police chief (Powers Boothe-type Gavan O'Herlihy) schleps semi-catatonic Sarah back into the caves for the search party, along with an inexplicably British rescue team and a sympathetic deputy/mom. The characters make concessions to safe cavern search procedures before getting separated and stalked through the tunnels of Gollum Mountain.

First-time director Jon Harris (who edited The Descent and Kick-Ass) doesn't match Marshall's gifts for quiet, inventive set pieces, and tolerates a few stupid plot points too many. Gratuitous gross-outs include a tumble into the crawler's latrine and a tendency for bloody to spatter in the faces of the female characters. It also bugged me that the crawlers' vocal abilities seem dictated by the mood of the sound director. The chitter like reptiles, they squeal like pigs, they roar like the MGM lion.

But Harris is smart enough to follow Marshall's playbook, appreciating the terrifying potential of twisty caves lit only by the party's flashlights. One monster-free set piece has a pair of women swimming from air pocket to air pocket in a narrow, flooded tube. The storytelling pays attention to informative details, like the way Sarah spits into an underground stream to see which way the water flows. Plus, the film stays sensitive to the emotional lives of its characters, especially the women, and the cop-mother delivers a teary good-bye to her daughter on a camera phone.

Arguably The Descent 2 is to its predecessor what The Fly II was to The Fly: unnecessary and ultimately forgettable, but possessed of some fresh ideas and generally competent. (Speak of the devil, David Cronenberg's The Fly plays at the Plaza's Splatter Cinema on May 11.) That may sound like faint praise, but in the straight-to-DVD horror market, competence is an underrated commodity. At the minimum, thrillers should be at least this good.

Image courtesy of Lions Gate.

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