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The Descent: Part 2 (2009)
Director: Jon Harris

review by Paul Higson
SPOILER ALERT!
It was all too easy to get unduly excited about a preview screening of The Descent: Part 2. It was after all the sequel to Neil Marshall's thrilling and gut-wrenching original The Descent, and here was the inaugural night offering for the new Manchester-based Halloween weekend festival spectacular 'Grimm Up North'. Director, Jon Harris, and stars were present and the bump up on the ticket price indicated that something special was to be anticipated. Ex-post facto to the screening, it should have been obvious that Jon Harris' The Descent: Part 2 had the odds stacked against it. Marshall's original film is basic enough in premise but was a thoroughly considered exercise in dread and shocks that proved phenomenally effective when caught in a cinema and no less so when subsequently met on a small screen.

The first question to be asked should have been where does one take the tale from here and the answer from screenwriters is nowhere. James McCarthy and J. Blakeson are the foremostly credited writers, but during the following Q&A, the director, Harris, and one of his stars Anne Skellern, big up the input from James Watkins, possibly based more on his current kudos rating as a result of the critical and commercial success of his film Eden Lake only last year. The action follows almost immediately from the first film's ending, and the new movie's biggest threat is that it might retrospectively injure its predecessor's reputation by so close a continuation and association. I doubt this will happen as what The Descent: Part 2 instead does is to allow the viewer to consider and appreciate all the more Marshall's film which is superior on every score.

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald, unable to make the preview screening as she recently became a mother) escapes the caverns and as she is covered in blood that is not her own she falls immediately under suspicion for the presumed murder of the other missing pot-holing pretties. A redundant mine-shaft provides the point of re-entry back down below for a team that consists of three rescue professionals Dan (Douglas Hodge), Cath (Ann Skellern), and Greg (Joshua Dallas). They are supplemented in their edible numbers by Sheriff Vaines (Gavan O'Herlihy), Officer Rios (Krysten Cummings), and Sarah, unfeasibly forced to return to the scene by the Sheriff, a plotting decision around which there was more than a murmur from the audience. The story is not dissimilar in route to that taken by Cold Prey: Resurrection (aka: Fritt vilt II), but that Norwegian horror was a more beautifully shot and character-driven production whose heroine, also suffering from shock and non-communicative, is subjected to a fresh assault before taking matters into her own hands and returning to the scene of at that film's end. Here, it simply happens because this is a film that needs to go back underground and no cogent argument is made for the decision.

The rest of the film is meaningless meandering in the dark and a botched reprise of past gory glories. There is little new added and when it comes, it does so with a discrepancy klaxon shrieking. This is hardly surprising given the involvement of James Watkins who will always prize an action over logic. When survivors splash into the cloacal pit the duo have concluded their battle with one of the crawlers before Rios enquires what it is they have fallen into... then running her hand through the surface and letting the clumpy brown content run through her fingers. There follows immediately another crawler parking his arse over the side to defecate in their immediate vicinity. This is the point at which they realise they should become bilious. Overriding fear or whatnot I think one would recognise a pool of excrement if one fell into it, but it is sadly a scatological earner for some quarters of the audience and will become the crassly talked about moment if any from the film. The rules are not as metriculously set and adhered to as they are in the first film. The crawlers are still blind and respond to sounds, but it has to be a virtual dinner bell or fire alarm this time as the exasperated survivors try and dodge them but sniff and snort and gasp in a way that cavern walls do not normally sniff and snort and gasp.

The rules around lighting are also thrown out. In the original, Marshall was not afraid to pitch his audience into the blackness with his characters but in The Descent: Part 2 the lights are put out on the safety helmets and the emergency lighting seems to kick in so that the activities of the participants are not lost. The continuity of the light becomes a serious problem in the film but there are many more serious contradictions and flaws. The characters are barely drawn and behave illogically to allow the story its shock developments (a Watkins trademark). The returning players (for there is a second survivor) even appear to have lost some of their original character, weakly written off this time as either combat shock or animalistic necessity.

You know that the moment handcuffs go on two characters it will amount to something ugly and the resulting scene has someone having to hack the hand off one of the wearers to save the other. One is not convinced by the sudden sisterhood that warrants the decision to sacrifice one for the other, nor does it make anything other than gory sense to hack at the arm rather than try at least for the handcuff (regardless of the cuffs' reputation for resilience). Moreover, you don't believe the handcuffing would be allowed in the first place. This screams of Watkins.

The makers praise the Ealing Studios team for the recreation of key locations from the first film which was shot at Pinewood Studios. The Ealing crew, however (harking back to the days of Hammer) do not seem to be up to the job of their Pinewood counterparts. The stalactites look like styrofoam, and 1960s' Doctor Who adventures faked them better. The golgotha floor from the first film, previously an indefinably large ossuary, is reduced to a handful of skulls and bones. The viewer doubts that this can be the same spot from the first film but then the characters find in situ the lost digital camera and images from the first film are played black, including the cannibal banqueting floor. "That is this place!" they exclaim. We, the audience, respond, 'the fuck it is!' and the film digs itself even deeper into its crap hole. Harris reports that it would have proven impossible to shoot in real caves, certainly not to match those of the original... but it is not impossible, Norman J. Warren shot Inseminoid in the Chiselhurst Caverns to great effect nearly three decades ago.

We discover that the crawlers now even have access to the surface and that they are not even shy of collecting corpses from the mouth of the hole in broad daylight, which makes nonsense of their sightlessness if this is, as is hinted, been the case for some time. I hate to put in spoilers but the ending needs speaking about because again it serves as a major example of the film's habitual nonsensicality. The woodsman, Ed (Michael J. Reynolds), who finds Sarah at the beginning of the film is also feeding the crawlers wildlife and inquisitive humans. Why rescue the girl at the outset if he is willing to go to such ends to retain their secret? Why not feed her immediately back to them? Why lead the rescuers to the mines when the likely outcome is that they will too be lost and draw only further attention to the crawlers.

The players cannot be held responsible and get a decent fix of emotions. It is good to see Douglas Hodge and Gavan O'Herily back on the screen and in genre fare, and it would be great to see them as regular fixtures in British horror movies, Hodge in particular could become the new David Warbeck. Michael J. Reynolds appears in his second British horror film this year, in a very different turn to that in Red Mist several months back, and for The Descent: Part 2 takes a role far from that you used to once expect to find him in (he seemed to disappear from the screen for nearly two decades though I am certain that was never really the case).

Grimm Up North is to be congratulated on its guests who proved far more entertaining than the film. Skellern clearly enjoyed the making despite, at one point, spending three days trapped in a constricting polystyrene space, and Myanna Buring, glimpsed in old footage, was able to relate on the making of the original film. If the film has one thing going for it then it is the editing which can only be expected as this is the director's true background, and the returning Paul Hyett enables rare continuity across the films in the appearance of the crawlers. The audience received the film well, though whether that was out of kindness to the presence of the makers or a simple target audience that had been sated I could not say, I can only admit to being in neither camp.

The Descent: Part 2

Grimm Up North - Halloween horror film festival 2009



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